Under current law, public school teachers, staff and officials have First Amendment free speech and free exercise rights only with respect to other school personnel, not with respect to students. Teachers, as agents of the state in a government school, are prohibited by current Supreme Court Establishment Clause legal analysis (often popularly referred to as the “the doctrine of the separation of church and state”) from sharing their religious beliefs with students. However, teachers continue to have free speech and free exercise rights as employees within their government-operated workplaces (the school). These rights include the right to engage in religious expression with other employees of the school. Religious exchanges between school employees, however, should always take place out of sight of students.
Teachers are considered to be agents of the government when they are present on the school campus and interacting with students. Therefore, anything they say regarding religion is attributable to the government and can be a violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause, which prohibits an establishment of religion by the government (and now requires complete “separation of church and state”).
Given this relatively new legal climate, many teachers and other school personnel are unclear about how much of their faith they can share with students. Christian teachers who have been teaching for many years are often perplexed with typical interactions they have have had for years with students about religion are now suddenly declared unconstitutional. When they are reprimanded by their superiors in the school system, they are often shocked to discover that they have done something wrong.
While courts the said that neither teachers nor students lose their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse door, students are permitted a great deal more religious liberty in public school than are teachers or other school officials.
While teachers in America were originally presumed to be agents (or extensions or representatives) of the parents, the situation changed in the mid-twentieth century as courts began to permit the government to exert more and more control over schools. In today’s America, a teacher in public school is considered to be an agent (or extension or representative) of the government rather than of the parent. As a representative of the state, a teacher must remain totally religion-neutral with students in school or risk a legal reprimand for violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause, which courts say does not permit the government to favor one religion over others.
These legal restrictions on teacher-student interactions about religion are a double-edged sword for parents. Communities are no longer uniformly Christian, and many public school teachers are no longer Christian. The religious beliefs of some students will always be compromised if teachers or other school personnel are permitted to promote their own faith with their students.
Ultimately, all education is religious at its core, however. When Christianity is no longer the dominant faith in school, the result is that other religions or no religion will be the message given to students. That is one reason why CLA believes so strongly that Christian parents, whenever possible, should make every effort to educate their children in a Christian environment.
On the other hand, CLA also supports the many Christian teachers who feel called to the public schools to reach students who receive no religious training at home. Such dedicated servants of God must learn to successfully navigate the turbulent waters of current legal requirements for public school teachers.
—Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008