Teachers face tough questions about religion

Sunday, October 11, 1998

“What can I say to students about my faith?”

That's the hot question this month in mail received from public-school teachers in Illinois, Utah and elsewhere.

The heightened anxiety and confusion about what is and isn't permitted under the First Amendment is probably triggered by recent high-profile conflicts in several states: A Bronx teacher was fired for praying with her students. A Florida principal found himself in trouble for taking students to revival meetings. An Alabama principal was accused of encouraging religious practices at school.

The short answer to the question is this: The First Amendment requires teachers to be neutral concerning religion while they're on duty. They can't use their position in the classroom to push religion or to denigrate religion. But that answer doesn't begin to address all of the issues.

Take a common scenario: What should teachers do when kids ask about their faith? The legal consensus appears to be that teachers are free to answer the question with a brief statement—but without turning the question into an opportunity to proselytize for or against religion.

Of course, teachers should consider the age of the students who are asking. It's easier for middle and high school students to distinguish between a teacher's personal views and the school's official position; it's harder for very young children.

The issue becomes more complicated when teachers want to organize after-school religious activities for their students. A teacher in Oklahoma, for example, writes to say he'd like to organize a Christmas celebration for his second-grade students at a local church. Worship is involved. The teacher will get parental permission for the kids who want to come. Is that legal?

It's a tough question. On the one hand, the teacher is using his school contacts to encourage student involvement in his religious activities. On the other hand, after the contract day ends the teacher is a private citizen who may promote religion as much as he wishes.

While it's a close call, the teacher probably can organize the celebration if he doesn't promote the activity in the classroom. If he sends the invitations and obtains parental permission on his own time, using his own resources, then this endeavor may not cross the First Amendment line.

But it may not be the sensitive or right thing to do. Second-grade students may feel compelled to participate in an effort to please the teacher. They may feel hurt or left out if their parents don't want them to go. After all, the classroom teacher is a major influence in a young child's life.

In general, however, teachers are just as free as other citizens to be religious on their own time. Some teachers are in a public-school classroom during the week and in front of a Sunday-school class on the weekend. And some of those kids in the Sunday school may be from their public-school class. Nothing unconstitutional about that.

Even during the school day, teachers may express their faith in various ways. Like students, teachers bring their faith to school with them each morning. In my view, the First Amendment doesn't prohibit teachers from reading a religious book during non-instructional time, saying a quiet grace before meals, or wearing religious jewelry. And if a group of teachers wishes to meet for prayer or study of scriptures during the school day, I don't see any constitutional reason why they shouldn't be allowed to do so—as long as the activity is outside the presence of students and doesn't interfere with the rights of other teachers.

Here's the constitutional bottom line: Deeply religious people who decide to teach in a public school need to put on their “First Amendment hat” when they go to work. That doesn't mean they must stop being religious (or stop modeling the values of their faith). It does mean they won't proselytize kids during the contract day. It means they'll be fair, honest brokers who protect the rights of students—of all faiths or none.