UNITED STATES District Judge Thomas G. Hull, who recently ruled that children of seven fundamentalist families in Tennessee don't have to read public-school textbooks that offend their religious beliefs, said he hopes this decision will spark debate over the freedoms of speech and religion. ``It think it ... will provoke discussion on the basic liberties of people,'' he declared.
Judge Hull's ruling has certainly provoked discussion - but not always of the most enlightening kind.
The so-called Religious Right is hailing the result of the Tennessee case as a great victory for bringing religion to the schools. And some would use the judicial rationale in this case - that the religious convictions of parents should be accommodated by the schools - to force open the door to prayer in the classroom and denominationalism in the schoolyard.
On the other hand, many civil libertarians are decrying this decision as an affront to religious freedom. A citizens' lobby called People for the American Way has compared the case to the much-heralded Scopes trial of 60 years ago when a Tennessee teacher was convicted of teaching evolution in the classroom.
An appeal is pending. Meanwhile, both sides are watching closely for a verdict in an Alabama case where fundamentalist parents have charged that textbooks and curriculum materials teach ``secular humanism,'' which they say is the functional equivalent of religion, and thus should be banned from the classroom.
This philosophy - which takes its name from something called the ``Humanist Manifesto'' in the 1930s - advocates promiscuous behavior, ranging from free love to homosexuality and abortion, say the Alabama plaintiffs.
Also related to the whole debate surrounding religion in the schools is an upcoming US Supreme Court hearing of a Louisiana case where plaintiffs want the ``science of creationism'' taught in the schools as a balance to presentations of Darwinism and theories of evolution. Fair is fair, they stress.
School authorities and others, however, explain that evolution is legitimate academic fare and rightfully should be included in the curriculum. On the other hand, biblical accounts of creation are religious in nature and should be proffered in the home and the church - not in the schools.
The debate is not likely to end with these three cases. Those who want to bring religious doctrine and advocacy into the public classroom won't be deterred, even by adverse court decisions. At the same time, those who would ``sanitize'' the schools from all aspects of religion and from most teaching of moral values will continue to push their cause under the First Amendment banner of the separation of church and state.
Perhaps both miss the point.
Sectarianism and the teaching of specific religious doctrine have no place in public education. Those parents who wish these tenets extended from the home and church to the academic setting should choose to send their children to private, church-related institutions.
Religious plurality must be the hallmark of public learning. Children should be taught that it is their right to worship privately - or to not worship at all. Public schools need to be neutral toward religion.
Neutrality. There's the rub. But the Constitution requires neutrality toward religion - not a complete banning of religious thought from the public arena.
Textbook publishers, who have been strongly pressured by fundamentalists and other religious zealots to include specific points of view in required reading, have often overreacted by excluding all references to religion from reading matter.
Paul Vitz, a New York University professor who surveyed 60 social-science texts used in the schools concluded that these books grossly ignore the role of religion in US society.
Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation which recently criticized undergraduate education in US colleges, stresses that knowledge of ``ethical'' issues is essential to enlightened learning.
And the late Robert Maynard Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago and certainly no devotee of religious denominationalism, repeatedly insisted that not the accumulation of facts but ``wisdom'' and ``goodness'' were the prime goals of education.
It would seem that it is within constitutional constraints to teach about religion - while not advocating any particular religious dogma.
Both the political left and right agree that the precepts of honesty, integrity, fair play, and respect for one's fellow human beings are an integral part of education for the young. And certainly the fact that most religions teach these same precepts does not diminish their worth in the classroom.
When a youngster walks up the front steps of the schoolhouse, he shouldn't have to shed a commitment to the Ten Commandments in order to don his First Amendment protections. The two are far from being incompatible.
A Thursday column