In general, teachers may not read the Bible or tell Bible stories, conduct devotional exercises, or pray in the classroom. Teachers may not witness to students even in private conversation while on school grounds. On the other hand, teachers may include objective information about religion wherever it naturally falls in the course curriculum. Generally, attorneys for the Christian Law Association (CLA) advise that the safest way for teachers and students to interact subjectively about religious issues is off campus when the teacher’s workday has ended and the student’s parents have given permission for the exchange.
Occasionally, CLA receives a call that demonstrates why teachers are not permitted to proselytize their students during school hours. One father called concerned that his daughter was being forced to participate in non-Christian religious observances prior to the Christmas holidays. Since the school had banned the celebration of Christmas, this first-grade teacher had determined to have her public school class engage in activities surrounding her own celebration of Kwanzaa was purely a cultural and not a religious holiday, bur attorneys representing CLA were able to demonstrate to school officials that students were, in fact, being exposed to pagan religious rituals during these holiday celebrations. School officials intervened to prevent this religious activity in the classroom.
Another father called when his second-grader was required to participate in an art project in which the students made Buddhist worship artifacts. The students were then taken to a Buddhist Temple to observe how the Buddhist priests used these objects in worship. The elementary school principal was shocked that a Christian parent would not want his child to participate in this “cultural” field trip. Attorneys for CLA pointed out to the principal that he would not likely have permitted this second-grade teacher to take the class to a Catholic mass or to a Baptist revival service or require the students to make crucifixes in art class.
A mother called when her daughter was taught in a public chool class that the Bible was no more inspired than the Koran. This teacher had also informed her students that Catholicism was the only true religion. Unfortunately, because parents do not want their students to be exposed to proselytizing in school by religious groups with which they do not agree, Christian teachers must also be prohibited from engaging in any type of Christian witnessing activity with students in class.
If a teacher’s superior has instructed her not to discuss her personal religious viewpoints in the classroom, that request should be diligently adhered to. Some teachers have legally been fired, not for discussing religion specifically, but for disobeying the direct order of a superior.
On the other hand, if no school policy forbids it and if a teacher knows her class well enough to discuss her personal religious viewpoints in the classroom, the following guidelines should be strictly adhered to:The discussion should be relevant to the academic curriculum.
- The comments should be age-appropriate.
- The discussion should not take up a large percentage of classroom time.
- The teacher should make sure that students understand these are her personal viewpoints, which the students are free to either accept or reject, and that they do not represent the view of the school district.
- The teacher should be careful not to engage in any sort of proselytizing in the classroom—either for against religion.
The guidelines given above should only be followed in circumstances where the teacher has never been told by the administration to avoid discussing religion in the classroom. A teacher may also choose to answer questions about her personal religious viewpoint by engaging in a two-part answer. The teacher could say: “A Christian believes” and then she may follow-up that comment, if asked, by telling the class that she is a Christian. Even this type of exchange should be avoided, however, if teachers have been told not to discuss religion with students.
In the absence of complaints by students or parent, teacher and other school officials have a great deal of discretion as to what will be permitted in the classroom. Teachers are generally free to control the content of their classroom discussions, including religious content, subject only to directives by principals or other school officials. Teachers should always make themselves aware of the range of religious beliefs (or nonbelief) that exists in their classes and should make decisions about religion accordingly. A good teacher will not want to offend the religious sensitivities of any child in her classroom.
—Keeping Christ in America’s Public Schools, Gibbs & Gibbs, 2008