For years, Martha Ball, an eighth-grade history teacher in Salt Lake City, noticed a disturbing trend: When she taught about historical events centered on religion, students in her class grew fidgety and uncomfortable.
When she taught about the Westward Movement "there was such tension" between Mormon and non-Mormon kids "it amazed me," Ms. Ball says. When she profiled 19th-century Mormon leader Brigham Young, some people thought she was preaching. "I began to avoid teaching some issues, because I didn't want to end up with a lawsuit."
But Ball no longer skirts those topics. Several years ago she underwent training that showed her how to teach about religion in constitutionally permissible ways.
It's part of a new tack schools nationwide are taking that's helping them tiptoe through tough issues of religion and education, from teaching history, to handling religious holidays, to a perennial springtime controversy - prayers at graduation.
"There is a growing consensus among education and religious groups that teaching about religion is an important part of a complete education," says Charles Haynes, a scholar in residence at the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
"We can never return to the days when schools were used to promote religion or where religion is silenced," he says. "Those two models have failed ... and have been devastating to public education. With this third model, we've seen tremendous leaps forward" in schools resolving religious differences.
The model is one that Dr. Haynes and his partner, lawyer Oliver Thomas, helped formulate. In effect, it shows educators, parents, and administrators ways to find common ground about religion by putting into practice the guiding principles of the First Amendment.
So far the project - called Finding Common Ground - has taken hold most in California, Utah, Georgia, and in several districts in other states. Texas is in the midst of starting it.
It often involves teams of parents, teachers, and administrators who attend seminars where they examine case studies and modern-day scenarios on religious-freedom issues, learn about the meaning and significance of the First Amendment, and how to apply it when teaching about religion.
The approach sounds logical enough, but many teachers avoid the subject of religion because they don't have the background, are afraid of stirring up trouble, or believe court decisions ban all talk of religion.
In workshops Haynes addresses many sticky questions. For example: Can teachers bring clergy members into history class to teach about ceremonies? The answer: Yes, as long as the teaching is academic, not devotional. May students give out Bibles in school? Yes, though the school can impose restrictions on time, place, and manner.
But the law doesn't answer all questions, so Haynes and Mr. Thomas help schools develop ground rules. "It's important to understand what's legal, but it's more important to think about the right thing to do for the community," Haynes says. "Christmas trees may be considered secular by the court, but ... there may be some people who see it as religious, so one has to have a conversation with the community. Without a policy, a teacher or administrator is hanging out there by themselves."
Most teachers say the instruction has made them more confident about what they can teach.
"It's made us more sensitive ... and we realize we have a lot of rights as far as teaching," says Kimberly Plummer, a teacher at de Portola Middle School in San Diego.
Ball, from Salt Lake City, says the program changed the way she teaches.
Now, for instance, she begins giving students a firm background in the First Amendment and its religious-liberty principles. She also delves into court decisions on religion and discusses religion as it comes up in history lessons. Now students are better prepared to discuss religious issues without resorting to angry debates, and the tension in her class has eased.
Though not universally accepted, the project has the backing of such diverse groups as the conservative California-based Citizens for Excellence in Education and the more-liberal People for the American Way. The reason for the consensus is simple: "As religion in the schools becomes more politicized, at least part of the reaction has been, wait a minute, let's educate people about what their rights already are ... let's try to find common ground," says Elliot Mincberg, legal director for People for the American Way.
In some districts students who left schools have returned. In the Snowline School District in San Bernadino, Calif., many conservative Christians home school their kids because they feel public schools don't provide the right environment. But the district started a back-to-basics school attracting children of evangelical parents. School personnel sat down with parents to address their religious-based concerns over self-esteem and sex education.
"There are still advocacy groups on both sides that are nervous," Haynes concedes. "But people who used to fight over everything are beginning to come to agreement more. This isn't just about religion in the classroom but learning to work together as Americans over our differences."
The First Amendment to the US Constitution
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.