December 13th, 2016
A New York teacher recently had a case heard in Second Circuit Court of Appeals court concerning the display of religious items in her classroom. The lower court previously ruled against the teacher. Individuals who are interested in the ongoing debate about religious expression in the classroom should understand some information about this case.
Backgrounds Concerning the Case
The case in question began after a high school student alerted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to a biblical poster and a drawing of three crosses in the teacher’s classroom. The teacher instructs students in biology and anatomy. The school district demanded that the teacher take these items down. A foundation that promotes that separation of government and religion reports that the student also reported a guest speaker in the teacher’s classroom who used Bible passages in presentations. The student has also reported that the teacher referred to Adam and Eve while discussing information about the human rib cage.
The Teacher’s Argument
The teacher in question argues that the school district threatened to terminate her immediately if the teacher did not remove the poster in question and a “prayer request” box that that the teacher had made for the school’s Bible Study Club. Although the teacher removed these objects, the school district continued charges against the teacher. The teacher argues that opposing counsel is continuing charges because the school desires the teacher to cease being a Christian once she enters school property. The teacher has further argued that her Christian faith defines her and that Bible verses guide her as a public school teacher. The teacher also denies accusations that she told her class that the student who initiated the case lacked integrity and character.
Religious Expression in School Classrooms
School districts limit teachers’ religious expression to avoid violations of the establishment clause, which requires strict separation between church and state. When a teacher who works for the state speaks to a class, the teacher represents the school and the school board. Because teachers are considered agents of the state, they may not attempt to convert students in religious matters. There are some times, however, when teachers are allowed to speak about religion because religions is a pivotal part of history and current social events. For example, a social studies class studying colonialism might need to learn some basics about Puritanism. In acceptable situations teachers are said to be teaching about religion, while in situations that are not acceptable teachers are said to be teaching religion.
The confusion about what is permitted as religious expression has caused a number of legal actions within this country. Often times, lawsuits place a teacher’s free exercise and free speech claims under the first amendment of the United States constitution against a school’s establishment clause. In many cases, these types of legal debates have the potential to result in unpredictable results because there is substantial case law supporting both side’s argument.
The Universal Life Church’s Blog
There are still many issues concerning the interaction between school and religion. It is the aim of the Universal Life Church’s blog to report details about the most recent legal cases and developments concerning these issues.