NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Does the First Amendment ban any mention of Jesus in elementary public schools? Incidents in three states in recent weeks suggest that some teachers and administrators still think the answer is “yes.”
A school superintendent in Alabama turned down a request by a community member to start an after-school club for students at the local elementary school. Why? Because the club would address issues from a Christian perspective.
Parents in Texas and New York, meanwhile, are involved in disputes over student speech during the school day.
According to a mother in the Texas district, her third-grade child was told that she couldn’t do her report on Jesus, even though the assignment was for students to write about a historical hero or heroine of their choosing.
Meanwhile in New York, another mother related that her child was told by a fourth-grade teacher not to talk about Jesus in school. Apparently, the girl told a boy (who was swearing) that he needed to have Jesus in his heart and that if he didn’t, he would go to you-know-where. The teacher labeled this “harassment.”
Each of these cases illustrates how difficult it is to get beyond our long history of fighting about the place of religion in public schools, especially if the religion at issue is Christianity. On the one hand, many parents fear a return to the days of Protestant-dominated public schools, while on the other hand, numerous Christian parents see public schools as hostile to their faith.
The legal guidelines distributed to public schools earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Education are supposed to provide common-ground answers. But many school officials either ignore the guidelines or are unsure about how to apply them in real-life situations.
Nowhere is this truer than in elementary schools. When young, impressionable children are involved, many school officials are particularly careful to avoid giving the impression that the school is either promoting or denigrating religion.
While such caution is needed to uphold the First Amendment, care should also be taken to ensure that “neutrality” doesn’t turn into “hostility.”
Consider the request in Alabama for an after-school club run by community members. If other community groups use the school’s facilities during non-school hours, then the district can’t exclude a club just because it has a religious viewpoint.
Fortunately, the superintendent got the message (aided by a letter from a public-interest law firm), and the Christian group was told that it could use the school building on the same basis as other community groups.
In the other two incidents, meanwhile, if the school districts want to do the right thing — and avoid expensive lawsuits — they’ll reverse the poor decisions made by the teachers.
The Texas case is the easier to address. If a child can pick any important figure from history, then selecting Jesus — or any other major religious figure — clearly fulfills the assignment. In fact, to permit students to choose from all great historical figures except religious leaders would violate First Amendment principles of fairness and neutrality.
Giving a report about Jesus isn’t the same as proselytizing or giving a sermon. It means writing about what Christians believe concerning the founder of their faith. As long as the report meets the academic standards set by the teacher, it should be allowed.
In the second case, it’s easy to understand the New York teacher’s concern for preserving harmony in the classroom. But that doesn’t mean teachers should censor the religious speech of students.
If this fourth-grade student was not disrupting class or coercing anyone, then she should have been permitted to state her views about Jesus. “Harassment” is a pattern of activity that persists even though the person on the receiving end has said “No” or “Leave me alone.” I fail to see how simply stating a religious conviction could be viewed as harassment.
Of course, public school teachers want children to be civil to one another and to share their views in ways that don’t cause anger or hurt. But that can’t mean excluding religious views on the grounds that other students might be offended.
Instead, teachers should help students understand that we live in a nation with diverse religious views, and that under the First Amendment, we all have the right to share our views with one another. The line we draw in a public school setting is drawn to prevent coercion, harassment or disruption — not to prevent speech.
Haynes is senior scholar/religious freedom programs with the First Amendment Center’s office in Arlington, Va. Your questions and comments are welcome. Write to Charles Haynes at the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn. 37212. E-mail address: [email protected].