Religious freedom still found in public schools

I’m old enough to remember those halcyon, sepia-toned days when students still said the pledge of allegiance and it was not at all unusual to begin the day with a word of prayer — whether intoned by the deep resonant voice of my principal over the intercom during morning announcements, or in class by the sprightly, sing-song voice of my seventh-grade homeroom teacher. Somehow we managed to survive those “oppressive” days of religious “indoctrination” without bringing any heavy weaponry to school to commit mass murder.

But the world has changed…  changed in many ways, and not all of them for the better.

A few weeks ago, an elementary school teacher in Tennessee told her class to write about someone they idolized…  precocious 10-year-old Erin Shead decided to write about God.

“I look up to God,” she wrote. “He will always be the No. 1 person I look up to. I love Him and Jesus. Jesus is His earthly son.”

But Erin’s teacher told her that she could not write about God — and that her paper could not remain on school property. Erin had to start over. Reluctantly, Erin then wrote about Michael Jackson. Well, I’m a Michael Jackson fan from way back. Jackson’s 1979 release “Off The Wall” was off the chain! But it’s a dark day in our civilization when a child must be discouraged to celebrate the King of Kings in lieu of the “King of Pop.”

Once the incident made national news, the school district issued a statement saying “no laws or district policies allow teachers to limit students’ expression of religious beliefs in their personal classwork. This was a regrettable misunderstanding, and we as educators must learn from it.”

Excellent! I’m glad the school district corrected the misunderstanding. Because too many teachers mistakenly think that their classrooms somehow need to be religion-free zones. That’s simply not true! What’s more, public school students still enjoy a wide range of religious freedom in this country — even in the classroom — I just think more educators need to be educated about it.

I have a lot of friends who work in public schools, some of whom have disclosed to me that they are not simply cautions about expressing their own religious views but think they are supposed to curtail the constitutionally-protected right to religious expression in their students as well. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s not that teachers are necessarily hostile to Christianity — quite the contrary — they are just tremendously misinformed and afraid of getting in trouble.

However, students’ religious liberties are clear. The U.S. Department of Education has issued guidelines for the past 18 years clearly articulating that students in U.S. public schools have the right to express their faith in their assignments. They can read their Bibles at school, they can pray openly, and they can even witness to their classmates under full protection of the law.

With the number of Christian families who send their children to public schools — especially down here in the “Bible Belt” — it’s high time we begin helping our schools become more faith-friendly places. We don’t need to “game the system” through state and federal courts. But it does need to begin with those who are already there.

I read a news article about a first-grader named “Emily” at a school in Southern California. As Christmas approached, her teacher told the students to bring their favorite holiday books, and she would read them to the class. But when Emily brought her Bible so the teacher could read about the first Christmas, she was told the Bible wasn’t allowed at school.

This came to the attention of a district school administrator, who just happened to be a Christian. So he initiated a district-wide retraining of all the elementary teachers regarding students’ religious liberties and how to properly address religious holidays.

Instead of looking at our schools from an “us versus them” perspective, we should say, “We are them! We’re the teachers, the principals, the school board members, and even the superintendents!” The problem is far too many Christians are uninformed about exactly what can be done in schools and how to do it appropriately.

No, we are not a “Christian nation” per se, but we are a nation of a lot of Christians…  and we have rights. The sword of pluralism swings both ways and the shield of tolerance protects every American, even those who call Jesus Christ their Lord and Savior.

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