December 2015 – “The first of all freedoms enumerated in our Bill of Rights is freedom of religion. … I urge all Americans to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities in their homes, schools, and places of worship.”
These words of Pres. George H.W. Bush announced the first Religious Freedom Day on January 16, 1993. Since that time, each president has issued a yearly proclamation reaffirming Religious Freedom Day on January 16. With this, the nation’s leaders clear the way for studying, promoting, and practicing religious liberties. However, teachers intimidated by strict warnings against bringing religion into schools are often unaware or unsure of how to approach the subject in a legitimate way in the classroom.
Fear to freedom
From presidential proclamations to rules set by the U.S. Department of Education to each state’s educational guidelines, government does provide, protect, and encourage freedom for religion in educational settings, but few are well versed in the ins and outs of what is lawful. That is where Gateways to Better Education steps in to help teachers and students move from fear to freedom.
“A lot of teachers don’t know what is expected of them,” Gateways president Eric Buehrer said. “The vast majority of educators have an erroneous view of separation of church and state and think schools have to be religion free zones. They may believe talking about Islam or Buddhism is multicultural and part of understanding the world, but talking about Christianity violates separation of church and state.”
Justin Butterfield, an attorney with Liberty Institute, a legal group dedicated to defending religious liberty, pointed out that misunderstanding is fostered by anti-Christian groups that attempt to pressure schools into prohibiting religious expression.
“Groups like Freedom From Religion Foundation send out thousands of letters that really misrepresent what the law says to scare schools into forbidding expressions of faith,” Butterfield said. “In reality, that’s the opposite of what the Constitution requires.”
Government guidelines on religious liberty in schools could not be clearer. The U.S. Department of Education in 1995, 1998, and 2003 sent information out for school superintendents to distribute so all parents, teachers, and students know their religious liberties. However, Buehrer told AFA Journal most teachers have never been informed of the Department of Education guidelines.
Some state academic standards also detail aspects of America’s religious background that teachers are required by law to teach. As an example, Buehrer pointed to state standards in Tennessee, where students are expected to learn about the 10 Commandments, selected readings from the Bible, and the teachings of Jesus and Paul.
Gateways has each state’s academic standards available for download on its website (gtbe.org), as well as Free to Speak pamphlets summarizing Department of Education guidelines.
“We have everything we need to robustly teach about America’s religious heritage,” Buehrer said. “All the laws are in place, all the state standards are in place. The problem is most people don’t know they are there.”
Christians in classrooms
Redressing misinformation begins with understanding what the law specifies, and then going into action by applying rights in appropriate ways.
“The legal case Tinker v Des Moines (1968) determined that neither students nor teachers shed their rights when they enter the classroom, and that includes religious speech and expression,” Butterfield clarified.
There are some areas in which teachers have complete religious freedom. (See resource below.*) In the classroom, there are also several ways to put religious freedom to work. A good first step is to instruct students on their own rights to religious freedom.
Butterfield told AFAJ, “Students are free to talk about their faith as long as it does not disrupt classroom time. Students may talk about religion in classwork and assignments, as long as it fits the parameters of the assignment. If an assignment is to write about a historic figure and a student wants to write about Jesus, the school can’t say no, because Jesus is a historic figure.”
While teachers are more limited because they represent the institution, they do not have to shy away from genuinely answering student questions about religion.
“Be honest, be brief,” Buehrer recommended. “You can certainly say, ‘Yes, I’m a Christian,’ ‘Yes, I go to church,’ but don’t say, ‘Well, since you started this conversation, let me tell you how you can have a relationship with Christ.’ Just because that door has been opened doesn’t mean a teacher has freedom to go there.”
But a teacher is not barred from ever speaking about religious matters. When it comes to classroom time, teachers can discuss religion in an objective, factual way if it is organically related to the subject matter.
“Courts have actually said that if teachers were prohibited from teaching about religious background, students would not be educated because they would be deprived of full knowledge of history and culture,” Butterfield said. “However, a teacher cannot use his or her role in class to encourage a student to become a Christian.”
“The test is could a non-Christian say it?” Buehrer pointed out. “A non-Christian could certainly say, ‘Christmas is a time when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus who they believe is God’s Son,’ and so forth. So, we encourage teachers to teach about the Bible or Christianity by attribution, meaning you attribute it as a source. It has to be relevant to the curriculum, and time spent teaching it should be proportional to its connection to the topic.”
A perfect opportunity to introduce the subject of religious freedom is a nationally observed patriotic or historic holiday such as Veterans Day, Independence Day, Constitution Week, or Religious Freedom Day. Ideas for turning the subject into a civics lesson on America’s cultural and historical background can be found online at religiousfreedomday.com. The site has presidential proclamations, founding documents, and Department of Education guidelines on religious liberty. Buehrer advised beginning the week of Religious Freedom Day with a Religious Freedom Sunday and ordering Free to Speak pamphlets to distribute at church and school.
“The beauty of the Free to Speak pamphlet is it’s not our opinion,” Buehrer said. “We’ve really just quoted the Department of Education. So you can give it to someone and say, ‘This is what the Department of Education says,’ and that’s a powerful tool.”
Gateways also partners with Alliance Defending Freedom to send a letter explaining the legal basis for religious freedom to school officials.
If lawful exercise of religious freedom at school incurs negative kickback, groups such as Alliance Defending Freedom and Liberty Institute stand ready to offer resources and legal assistance to protect the fundamental right to religious liberty.
“The Constitution provides broad protection for religious expression, and schools are not allowed to stop that,” Butterfield said.
Find resources to give teachers citing their religious freedoms at:
▶ Gateways to Better Education gtbe.org 949-586-5437
▶ Liberty Institute libertyinstitute.org 972-941-4444
▶ Alliance Defending Freedom adflegal.org 800-835-5233
*Use an Internet search engine to find “7 Back-to-School Religious Liberties Every Teacher Must Know”