The Civic Framework

Teaching About Religion
in support of civic pluralism
All citizens of this nation are to be on a level playing field of rights and
responsibilities with regard to their liberty of conscience.

The guiding principles underlying considerations of religion in public schools
are the Religious Liberty clauses of the First Amendment to the United
States Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…"

These guiding principles, as understood and interpreted both by the nation’s
courts and by the citizenry, provide a civic framework of rights and
responsibilities for treatment of religion and for negotiations of
disagreements or differences. All U.S. citizens, religious or not, are vested
in this civic framework.

With respect to public education, two documents -
Religious Liberty, Public
Education, and the Future of American Democracy: A Statement of
and the Williamsburg Charter - justify mention. Each is an
instance of the civic framework being interpreted by what has, over time,
been a succession of organizations and/or religious groups. Both
documents’ interpretations of the civic framework are spelled out within
several pages of detail in a single book -
Finding Common Ground: A First
Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education
, published by the
First Amendment Center (See Chapter 2: "A Civic Framework for Finding
Common Ground").

Both documents declare religious liberty (freedom of conscience) to be an
inalienable right of every person. (From the former:) "As Americans, we all
share responsibility to guard that right for every citizen." (From the latter:)
"The two Religious Liberty clauses address distinct concerns, but together
they serve the same end—religious liberty, or freedom of conscience, for
citizens of all faiths or none."

These statements denote that all citizens are to be on a level playing field of
rights and responsibilities with respect to liberty of conscience. The framers
of the Constitution, in the First Amendment’s two religious liberty clauses,
made (in the words of the
Williamsburg Charter), "…a momentous
decision, perhaps the most important political decision for religious liberty
and public justice in history… Yet the ignorance and contention now
surrounding the clauses are a reminder that their advocacy and defense is a
task for each succeeding generation… A society is only as just and free as it
is respectful of this right for its smallest minorities and least popular

Civic Ground Rules for Schools

Charles Haynes, of the First Amendment Center, has written widely about
liberty of conscience in the context of public education. On the issue of
"teaching about religion," he writes: "When we teach about the many
cultures and religions of our nation and the world,
we must simultaneously
teach our common ground
— the civic values and responsibilities that we
share as American citizens. If this is done, teaching about religion becomes
an excellent opportunity to teach respect for universal rights and mutual
responsibilities, within which the deep differences of belief can be

Placing religious liberty principles at the heart of American civic values and
citizenship, Dr. Haynes puts forward the following Three Rs as civic
essentials for public schools, just as they are the ground rules of American

Rights – Religious liberty, or freedom of conscience, is a basic and
inalienable right founded on the inviolable dignity of the person. In a society
as religiously diverse as the United States, it is essential that schools
emphasize that the rights guaranteed by the Constitution are for citizens of
all faiths and none.

Responsibilities – Religious liberty is not only a universal right, but it also
depends upon a universal responsibility to respect that right for others,
treating others as we ourselves desire to be treated. All citizens must
recognize the inseparable link between the preservation of their own
constitutional rights and their responsibility as citizens to defend those rights
for all others. This is what the Williamsburg Charter calls the "Golden Rule
for civic life."

Respect – Debate and disagreement are vital to classroom discussion and
a key element of preparation for citizenship in a democracy. Yet, if we are to
live with our differences, particularly our religious differences, how we
debate, and not only what we debate, is critical. At the heart of good
citizenship is a strong commitment to the civic values that enable people
with diverse religious and philosophical perspectives to treat one another
with respect and civility.

Corrections and comments invited. [last modified: 8/31/04]
Author: Mynga Futrell, Ph.D.