Teachers’ rights don’t end in class

Sunday, February 2, 1997

I know that public school teachers are government employees.
But what religious-liberty rights do teachers have on the job?
When does their role as “government representative”
Reggie Hill, Spartanburg, S.C.

Public school teachers, like all citizens, enjoy the full religious-liberty
rights guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
However, while carrying out their duties in the schools, teachers
are acting on behalf of the government. In that capacity, teachers
must be neutral and fair concerning religion.

Before the contract day begins and after it ends, there is no
constitutional restriction on the rights of teachers to practice
their faith openly and freely. (The “contract day” varies
from district to district. Nashville, Tenn., teachers are on duty 7 1/2 hours each school day.) In the evenings and on weekends, many
public school teachers also teach in their religious communities.

When in the presence of students during the school day, teachers
must be careful to neither inculcate nor inhibit religion. Teachers
may, of course, teach about religion wherever the subject
naturally arises in the curriculum. But they must do so in a way
that is academic, not devotional. By contrast, students may express
their religious or non-religious views in class as long as such
expressions are relevant to the discussion. In upholding the First Amendment, teachers have a responsibility to protect the religious liberty rights of all students.

Teacher neutrality toward religion does not mean neutrality toward
moral values, of course. Teachers should be expected to teach
and model the core moral character traits and civic virtues — such
as honesty, caring and respect for others — shared by the wider

But what happens when students ask the teacher, as they often
do, to reveal his or her own religious beliefs?

Some teachers prefer not to answer the question, stating that it is inappropriate
for a teacher to inject personal beliefs into the discussion.
Teachers of very young children, in particular, sometimes find
this the most satisfactory answer.

Many other teachers, however, do not wish to leave students guessing
about their personal views. In the interest of establishing an
open and honest classroom environment, these teachers should answer
the question in a way that is brief and straightforward. I suggest
turning the question into a civics lesson, saying something like:
“These are my personal beliefs, but my role here is to teach
fairly about the various beliefs at work in history (literature,
art, etc.).” The answer should never be used as an opportunity
to proselytize or to impose religious or anti-religious views
on the students.

May teachers practice their faith in other ways while on the
job? Reading a religious book during non-instructional time, saying
a quiet grace before meals, or wearing religious jewelry are all
appropriate in a public school setting. Displaying a religious
message on the classroom walls throughout the year or leading students in prayer
are inappropriate and unconstitutional.

What about teachers who want to meet with other teachers for
religious reasons during the school day? For example, teachers
in a school district near San Diego recently asked the principal
if they could have a prayer meeting in the faculty lounge during
one of their breaks. The principal said yes, for two reasons.
First, the activity was outside the presence of students. Second,
the lounge was big enough so that other teachers could also use
the room during the break. Given those circumstances, I agree
with the principal that this is a fair and reasonable accommodation
of the teachers' request.

In just such ways, the First Amendment works to protect the religious-liberty
rights of everyone, including teachers. Setting an example through
their actions and their teachings, public school teachers play
a vital role in preserving the American experiment in religious
liberty for all of our citizens.