Church party legal, but must be dealt with sensitively

Sunday, October 5, 1997

A distraught teacher from Oklahoma called last week.


He had just
been told by his principal that he couldn't have a Christmas party
at a local church for his second-grade class.


The teacher is upset
and disappointed, because he sees the party as an opportunity
to tell the students about his Christian faith, something he knows
he can't do in class.


This is a painful story.


Many public school teachers with deep
religious commitment are torn between their constitutional duty
to be neutral about religion while teaching in a public school
and their religious obligation to share their faith.


In this case,
the teacher recalls how his high school coach inspired him to
become a Christian.


Now he feels called to do the same for his
students. He realizes that he can be a Christian example at all
times, but he also wants an opportunity to speak about his faith
to those who want to listen.


The teacher thought that the Christmas gathering would be legal
because it is off-campus and in the evening.


Now he wants to know:
Can my principal stop me from doing this?


The First Amendment answer is “no.”


Under the establishment
clause, the teacher may not inculcate nor inhibit religion in
the presence of students during the contract day.


But under the
free-exercise clause, the teacher is free to practice his faith
on his own time.


The answer might be different if the teacher were to promote the
gathering during school hours or in some way pressure students
in class to attend.


Public school teachers may not use their position
to proselytize for or against religion.


This teacher understands the ground rules of the First Amendment.


The invitation to the party will be sent from his home to the
parents, and the reply form will have his home address. He'll
make no mention of the event in class.


The principal's position is that this teacher is using his access
to the students in his class to promote his faith, even though
the event is after school hours.


But if we go down that road,
public school teachers would have few rights as private citizens.
Many teachers see students and parents outside of school in various
settings, including religious ones.


They may, for example, teach
Sunday school or Hebrew class to kids who might also be in their
class at school.


The Christmas gathering may be legal, but is it the right thing
to do?


Here the school's concerns should be taken seriously. After
all, these are very young, impressionable children.


Will the children
who don't go to the party feel that they have let their teacher
down?


Will their classmates who do go make the others feel uncomfortable
for not being part of the group? Will parents feel pressure to
bring their kids, out of concern that the teacher might treat
their child differently if he or she doesn't show up?


If the principal
is smart, she'll drop the constitutional argument and concentrate
on encouraging the teacher to be sensitive to questions like these.


Fortunately, in this instance, the teacher is sensitive to these
potential problems.


He's planning the event on the evening of
the last day of school before the holiday break so that kids won't
be talking about it in class the next day.


He'll make clear in
his letter that this isn't a “class event” but rather
an invitation to individual children and parents.


And he'll reassure
the principal that all children in his class will be treated fairly,
whether or not they attend the party.


This case illustrates that the law alone doesn't have all the
answers.


Yes, it is necessary that we know and apply constitutional
principles. But it is even more vital to the health of our nation
that we do so with fairness and respect.