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Religious Freedom At Secular Schools

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1985, Volume 2, Number 2, pages 318-320. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Religious Freedom At Secular Schools

John W. Alexander

What should be the attitude of a secular school towards controversial issues in general and religious issues in particular?

The answer depends first of all on the purposes of an educational institution. I submit that the purposes of a secular school should be: (1) To help each student develop his potential as an individual, and (2) to help such students participate in producing a better society.

With such purposes to fulfill, how should a school proceed in handling controversial issues? I believe that the worst strategy is that which prohibits students and faculty from discussions and involvement in them. By such action, the school defaults on a trust If its purpose is to prepare students to face life, then it must help them learn to face controversy. Life is loaded with controversy. How can a school claim to be training students for decision-making in the arena of controversy if it prohibits their entering that arena? Students should be able to learn the rudiments of “winnowing and sifting,” and a school owes them assistance in developing their abilities to do so. Prohibition is an unwise strategy for a school to adopt regardless of what controversy is under consideration.

I.  Now let’s focus on one of the thorniest of the controversies facing a secular college or university: religion on campus. There are at least three options before decision-makers.

Authorities can choose to prohibit religious involvement at least in part.  Where this occurs, the reason usually cited is “separation of church and state.” I believe this is a poor option for a reputable college or university to take, for three reasons.

First, "church” and “state” are institutions. “Religion” is a realm of thought.  Separation between institutions is wise. It would be undesirable for the state to tell a church how to run its affairs; conversely, we do not want any church trying to run the state. But the college or university which prohibits members from explanation of and involvement in religion is constructing a fence around a valid portion of inquiry and posting a sign that says: "Keep out while on campus. You are prohibited from expressing ideas in this realm.”

Religion is not an institution. It is a realm of ideas - a realm where most minds are interested in thinking, where there is information to be learned, wisdom to be acquired, decisions to be made, experience to be gained.

At this point, a critic might say, “But religion is the business of churches. If students want to study religion, let them go to church." This is analogous to telling a student who wants to study electricity that he should go to General Electric or Westinghouse and discuss the topic there.

Prohibition is undesirable for a second reason: It is thought-control. It is a denial of intellectual freedom.  If a college or university denies freedom to express religious ideas, it may not be long before the arm of thought-control reaches into additional aspects of intellectual freedom.

Third, prohibition of religious freedom places the school on the anti-religion side of the controversy. Proponents may wish to ban religion so that the university will be “neutral.” But this is impossible. To ban religious freedom is to take an anti-religion position.

II.  A second option is to ban religion during the class day but permit freedom before and after the regular daily schedule. This is better than total prohibition, but it too is unacceptable for intellectually free institutions.

III.  The third option is the one I wish to propose. Let’s call it responsible freedom. By “freedom” I mean date things:

1. Students and faculty are free to study, discuss, and express themselves concerning the political and/or religious dimension of reality whenever these fit naturally into any class discussion. Whether or not time is devoted to it depends on the interest of the students and the discretion of the teacher.

2. Students and faculty are free to invite outside political and/or religious speakers to speak to any optional meeting, regardless of size and regardless of time, provided no other meeting is scheduled in the room

3. Students and faculty are free to assemble on campus to think, discuss, listen, speak, and express their ideas in any manner of their choice in any realm of thought, including politics and religion, with the only provision being that they use such freedom in a responsible manner.

By “responsible" I mean three things:

1. Where one side of a controversy is being presented, the other sides are free to express rebuttal by students, teachers, or outside speakers.

2. The freedom one person enjoys must not restrict another person’s freedom. Freedom without responsibility is license. My exercise of my freedom must not interfere with your exercise of yours.

3. Expressions must not advocate any action which would result in loss of freedom to other individuals.

If the forgoing principles are valid, may I suggest the following guidelines for secular colleges and universities in the United States?

1.  The United States is rich in religious and cultural diversity. It should, therefore, seek ways to broaden, not stifle, educational experiences of students and faculty, helping them to understand and respect this pluralism.

2.  The school as an institution should provide a neutral climate in which every student even a minority of one is encouraged to use his freedom in responsible fashion for exercising his conviction on every controversy, including politics and religion.

3.  In such an atmosphere the school provides a golden opportunity for members to develop skiff in answering the two basic questions of every controversy: What do I believe? Why do I believe it? It is at this very point that evangelizing can play a valuable role. Members who are free to evangelize in a responsible manner can develop clear thinking in what they believe and why. The atheist, for example, enjoys freedom to challenge the Christian, and the Christian is free to reciprocate. Incidentally, is not this the same attitude we want the university to take in the realm of political truth and political controversy, namely that of responsible freedom?

4.   School facilities may be used by any of its students for any political and/or religious purpose, provided that the facilities are not previously booked by some other group and are left in good condition.

In conclusion, let us use controversy to stimulate the skins of students in handling controversial issues rather than to fence them out from the very experiences that, under wise teachers, can help youth develop those potentials.


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