The role of religion and prayer in schools has always been controversial, and teachers are advised to neither encourage nor discourage religious observances. As a teacher, what religious celebrations or practices might you encounter in your classroom? How would you respond to these issues while maintaining your neutrality?
Religion and prayer in schools has always been controversial. One fact that I find quite interesting is that “separation of church and state” never appears in the Constitution. In fact, the Constitution was totally silent on the subject of religion. The relationship between church and state as we know today was primarily the responsibility of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom Act in 1777, introduced into the House of Delegates in 1779, reintroduced in 1785, and finally adopted by the full General Assembly on January 16, 1786. This was one of the most eloquent statements of religious freedom ever written, in which he coined the statement “separation of church and state”. The statute influenced both the drafting of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the United States Supreme Court’s understanding of religious freedom.
“Almost immediately upon its adoption, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom became a bellwether for religious liberty. Throughout the latter part of the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century, it was cited as the true measure of religious freedom and relied upon extensively in state constitutional and legislative debates, particularly when church-state relations were at issue.” (Ragosta, 2012) In 1846, Jefferson used the Act to restrict a teacher from teaching religion at the University of Virginia. Moreover, the slogan “separation of church and state” has landed its popularity through landmark cases, such as Reynolds v. United States and Emerson v. Board of Education, protecting the rights of all religious affiliates and restricting the church from enforcing or influencing their own rules over the people. You see, Jefferson was a believer that the republic was founded on inalienable rights of the people to practice their own religion. Many Conservatists protest that Jefferson’s intention was not to limit the practice of religion in public, but rather to limit the federal government’s hand on religious issues. However, keeping in mind the words of the pledge of allegiance “one nation under God” and “In God We Trust” printed on money, it is difficult for me to believe that our founding fathers believed “separation of church in state” is the intended interpretation as known today.
I grew up in a religious home and have always been aware or familiar of how religious observances are considered offensive to other people who did not share my same views. However, I was really quite surprised one day in my child’s classroom that there was a girl who did not participate in the salute of the American flag. At first, I felt very offended by her lack of patriotism. Especially with the most recent terrorists attacks, like 9-11, the first thing that comes to my mind is why would people not love our country? Why wouldn’t you want to say the pledge of allegiance? The pledge is a symbol of the freedom our great country was founded upon. Americans are taught that from day 1, and any act against that belief raises concerns. Since then, I have been quite critical to this stance and I have wandered what I would do as a teacher in this situation. Of course my daughter’s teacher had to explain to me that it is not required, by law, those individuals who decide not to participate in saluting the American flag take advantage of the “free exercise” clause in the 1st Amendment. I do not know why I thought saying the pledge of allegiance was a law, but it had always been expectation of mine. Second of all, it raised concerns I had for that child. Was it the parents who requested the child to not participate? How was the child being treated at school for not participating? Never the less, I have never done any research on my own related to participation in the salute to the American flag, but my reaction was so stereotypical that I assumed this child was a foreigner. Now I realize that my limited knowledge of one’s religious beliefs caused me to have such intolerance of this student’s choice. Moreover, I am led to believe many Americans are just as ignorant as I am when it comes to saying the pledge of the USA.
In a documented court case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) the question arose, Should students be required to participate in the salute to the flag?” Jehovah Witness students and parents were facing harsh penalties (expulsion, fees, jail time) because of their refusal to participate in an act they considered went against their religious beliefs. In this case the court decided there was no clear and present danger of their action, and in a democracy students have a right to chose. To me this is very different than what I have always believed.
I have first hand experience with these topics because I was a student who did not participate in school activities that offended my family’s Christian beliefs and values. My first experience was when my parents did not allow me to participate in the Halloween events in my public school. My parents taught me that Halloween was “demonic”, not of God. However, I did not see it that way at the time and I felt my friends did not think so either. All I saw was my friends dancing around the gym in their fun costumes getting candy. As I grew older, I did realize that other children have different religious beliefs about holidays my family did celebrate, like Christmas and Easter. In a multi-cultural classroom, teachers have a duty to teach about people’s cultural differences. I believe ignorance does not promote tolerance of one another’s religious beliefs and/or family heritage. We become less offended by their actions once people understand the reasons why people act the way they do. We are confronted with these types of situations often in society, and our children need to learn how to deal with not only tolerance of other’s beliefs and actions, but to learn how to stand up for the things they believe in. This characteristic of society is what holds America apart from any other nation in the world. Because teachers play such an instrumental role in children’s lives outside of their nested homes, teachers have the responsibility for setting this example, and teaching the children how to react to situations that go against their beliefs.
Another topic that I believe as a teacher I would encounter in my classroom is teaching scientific evolution theories. In the public school I attended I was very confused as a students because of my religious background. I would come home often questioning my parents as to why I was being taught this as opposed to our belief in Creation. My parents were able to help me guard my beliefs during this time. I further went on to a Christian school where I was taught about Creation. However, at the Christian school I was taught both opposing views- Creation and evolution. This prepared me for the future by giving me insight as to what others believed and the reason for my own beliefs in the world’s existence; unlike at the public school where I was taught about evolution only. When I went to college, I actually thought I would have to put my religious guard up again and engage in the material for what it was and soon it would be over and forgotten. However, I appreciated the way my professor brought Creation into his classroom. He did not spend a whole class period, neither was it part of his curriculum. He only acted on his right to free speech by stating one question, “Where did ‘it’ come from?” As a scientist, never in his life was anyone able to explain where the components of the “bang” came from. It is a simple fact that he stated if denied and it not true then society has lost nothing, but if (Creation) is true, we have lost an eternity. I feel if people that believe in Creation have to be tolerant of evolution theories then tolerance needs to go both ways.
When teaching evolution, a state cannot require that the biblical version of evolution (Creation) be taught. Cannot require? Does this mean teachers have the “option” to teach Creation? What the courts did decide is that religion can be taught through literature or history lessons. As Dr. Huffman suggested that many wars have been fought over religious reasons. Moreover, the students could study how religions evolved throughout history. Unfortunately, I believe a lot of times teachers are scared to elaborate more on religious topics because it has the tendency to become very controversial. However, I see more and more of the school administration not promoting but allowing the students to facilitate their own religious conversations.
Huffman, J. (2013). School Law [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from https://canvas.umw.edu/courses/799079/files/26452899/download
Holmes, David. The faiths of the founding fathers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Mapp, Alf. Faiths of our fathers: what our founding fathers really believed.
Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
Ragosta, J. Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786). (2012, August 30). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Virginia_Statute_for_Establishing_Religious_Freedom_1786.