By Fiona Soltes
Have you ever wondered what a public school teacher can or can’t say, especially in terms of shaping your child’s beliefs?
In 2008, a 16-year-old California student decided his rights were being violated. Chad Farnan’s European history teacher had been making comments that Farnan considered decidedly discriminatory. Among them, that creationism is “superstitious nonsense” and that “when you put on your Jesus glasses, you can’t see the truth.”
Farnan and his parents, however, went beyond simply talking to school district administrators, who dismissed the complaints. The case landed in federal court, and last year, the verdict came down: Some of the teacher’s words did indeed violate Farnan’s constitutional rights.
When it comes to rights, we often teach our kids about their own freedom to express themselves however they choose. We encourage them to share their beliefs without fear. But what about a teacher’s right to do the same? Have you ever wondered what a teacher can or can’t say, especially in terms of shaping your children’s beliefs? And does it make a difference if those teachers are for or against your views?
Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, written by David C. Gibbs Jr. and David C. Gibbs III and distributed through the Christian Law Association (christianlaw.org), makes it clear: Modern courts have determined that teachers and school officials are “agents of the state” and no longer “agents of the parents.” As such, they must practice separation of church and state to avoid violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
This means that while students can make religious comments that are “pertinent to the topic being discussed in the classroom”; decline to answer questions on tests that would require them to violate sincerely held religious beliefs; and wear religious clothing should they choose to do so, the rules are a bit different when it comes to the teacher standing in front of the class.
Public school teachers cannot express personal opinions about religion while in the classroom. They are to remain neutral, whether the comments expressed are their own or those of the students. The U.S. Department of Education released Religious Expression in Public Schools: A Statement of Principles, and a June 1998 update by then-U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley says this: “Schools may not forbid students acting on their own from expressing their personal religious views or beliefs solely because they are of a religious nature. Schools may not discriminate against private religious expression by students, but must instead give students the same right to engage in religious activity and discussion as they have to engage in other comparable activity.”
As we all know, however, we don’t live in a perfect world. Comments are made, opinions are shared, and lines can get murky. So what’s a parent to do if warning lights start to flash? Here are a few suggestions from Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools:
- Remember, parents have the right, in many cases, to “prevent their children from being taught material that would negatively impact or burden their own sincerely held religious beliefs.” If there’s no compelling reason for every child to participate in a questionable assignment or activity, the student must be allowed to opt out at the parent’s request.
- The school board is elected by the community and therefore “legally expected to represent the perspective of the majority of the community.” In other words, there’s strength in numbers. The more people in a district who can present a problem in a unified manner, the more likely the school board will listen.
- If and when religious discussions begin in a classroom, students are allowed to share their own viewpoints, “as long as these activities are not disruptive to the educational climate.” Debate that is respectful, wise, and well thought-out can be a plus in any classroom.
Fiona Soltes is a freelancer based just outside of Nashville, Tenn. She’s a solid believer that there’s still plenty of prayer going on in schools — and hopes that it’s as much for the teachers, the environment, and the other students as it is assistance in passing tests and making teams.
The Power of Prayer in Schools
by Keith Manuel
There is still power in fervent, effectual prayer in public schools. In spite of legal opinions or administrative pressure, a parent or teacher can have a robust, personal prayer ministry.
If you’re a teacher, before class, take a few moments to prayerwalk your classroom, going to each desk, praying for each student by name. Silently pray for your students as they enter your classroom. Or pray for your students at night when you’re grading their papers.
When you pray, ask God to open doors for you or your church to minister to the needs of students’ families. As a teacher you, of all adults, are aware that some of your students will share information with you they may never share with another adult. Be open to opportunities to pray for your coworkers, as well.
Parents, you can be mighty prayer warriors on behalf of your children and their teachers. I know of one parent with a child in an elementary school who volunteered to read every few weeks in her child’s classroom. As she entered the school, she prayed for the receptionist and the administrators. She also prayed for teachers and students as she walked down the halls.
However, her prayer ministry didn’t stop there. While in the carpool line, she prayed for parents she saw. Every morning and afternoon, she prayed for the police officer who provided security for the school. While watching the children walking by with loaded backpacks, she prayed for their spiritual and physical needs.
Your work may not afford you the opportunity to walk the halls of your child’s school, but you can pray during parent/child field trips or while attending special school activities or sports. You can even get a list of all the teachers and pray for a different one by name each day during your private prayer time.
The consistent practice of prayer by believers can have a tremendous impact on our schools. Prayer may not be a corporate activity allowed in your setting, but no one can hinder the silent, yet powerful, prayers of a teacher or parent from reaching our Heavenly Father.
This article originally appeared in the August, 2010 issue of HomeLife. To subscribe, click here or on the magazine cover.