ChristianTeacher.org

Daring to Discuss Religion in the Classroom

by B. Jane Kulp

For too long teachers have blamed textbook publishers for the lack of religion in the curriculum. However, teachers really have no one to blame but themselves. An effective teacher should not be teaching only the material in the textbook. Integrated studies, whole-language studies, and activity centers all involve getting studentsí noses out of the textbooks and into other sources of information. Conscientious teachers need to do likewise.

Publishers provide the mandated foundation--the basic information and materials which assure that the requirements of the standards-based curriculum are being met. Individual teachers are encouraged to build upon that foundation using their own creativity and professional judgment.  Christian teachers, as Christís ambassadors in the classroom, must especially be willing to "go the extra mile" and do things a little differently.

Although teachers often plan together and share ideas, each oneís presentation of a given topic will naturally be unique due to the differences in their personalities, their talents, their training, and their expertise. God is counting on Christian teachers in public schools to use their minds, their abilities, and their knowledge in ways that will bring honor and glory to Him. To do this, the teacher must delve a little deeper--take the textbook facts and discover how they fit into Godís design.

Equipped to Discuss

For the Christian teacher lesson preparation should begin with learning about the backgrounds of the key people mentioned in the textbooks--authors, illustrators, photographers, presidents, military leaders, scientists, mathematicians, etc. The best resources for this purpose are primary documents written by the individuals, such as diaries, journals, and published works. Primary documents give insight into the real person; whereas biographies merely give the perception another author has of that person. Most personal writings will undoubtedly reveal divine motivation along with a strong belief in God. All students need to be shown how faith affected the lives of people throughout the ages. Determining a personís inner drives is important to understanding why they did what they did--to relating cause with effect (a standards-based skill).

Most major historic events were prompted by peopleís religious beliefs, insights, and dreams. Looking behind the dates and facts to discover the individuals who provided the driving force behind an event will reveal many tales of faith and vision. If America wants its children to be inspired to succeed, then teachers must share with them stories of hope and inspiration. Students need to know that Martin Luther King Jr. was not the only person in history to say, "I have a dream."

Numerous scientific discoveries--in every field from astonomy to medicine to zoology--were prompted by meditating on creation, contemplating Scripture, and praying for Heavenly guidance. Christian teachers need to learn what let up to each discovery and share it with the students.  Students also need to be shown that not all scientists believe in evolution. They need to realize that the words "theory" and "hypothesis" are just words like "idea" and "guess." Teachers must make sure students understand that only scientific "laws" are established facts which have actually been tested and proven to always be true.

A Christian teacher can research each "law" or "discovery" and show that often verification can be found tucked away in the Bible, because God knew it all along.  The road to manís discovery of Godís truth is generally paved with trials and errors. Students cannot learn from the mistakes and successes of the past if they are not guided in exploring all the background details, in thinking about all the motivating factors, and in discussing all the whyís and whereforeís.

Inspired to Discuss

All truth is Godís truth, and Christian teachers need to be motivated by that fact.  They must be inspired to find the truth and share it with their students.  God did not put a limit on where His truth should be carried. He said, "Go ye into all the world" (Mark 16:15). He chooses some very special people to go into the world of the public classroom. He said, "Go ye, therefore, and teach....teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). Jesus didnít preach. He taught--by example, by stories, by references to the past, by discussion--and that is what He wants His classroom servants to do.

When the Lord spoke to His Heavenly Father, He said, "As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world" (John 17:18). The Father sent His Son to be born in a stable in a province governed by cruel Herod.  He sends many Christian teachers into a poorly supplied classroom governed by harsh, demanding administrators.  He knows all about world of education into which He has sent His servants.  He understands government intimidation and religious persecution. The Lord might well say, "Been there. Done that."  Because he understands, He is constantly interceding on behalf of the chosen ones.

Unfortunately, many Christian teachers are easily intimidated by all the anti-religion hype in the media, and so they hide their light under a bushel and are afraid to discuss religion in the classroom. They ignore Jesusí command, "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father, who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16).  They forget that God is always there with them in the classroom, ready to guide and encourage.

"Thou art my servant; I have chosen thee, and not cast thee away," God proclaims. "Fear thou not; for I am with thee. Be not dismayed; for I am thy God. I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness" (Isaiah 41:10-11). Daring to discuss religion in the public classroom is part of the command to "let your light so shine." God says, "Fear not." And the Supreme Court says, "Go ahead."

Permitted to Discuss

In 1987 the Supreme Court made the statement, "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.") [1]  In other words, a teacherís right to freedom of speech is still in effect within the walls of the public classroom. This means teachers do have the right to discuss religion, as do students. Therefore, class discussions related to religion are legally permissible. The discussions must simply meet three government criteria; they must be relevant, objective, and orderly. (For more information on U.S. Department of Education guidelines see my article Shining His Light in a Dark Place.)

A conscientious Christian teacher must adhere to the government guidelines. While in the classroom, teachers are not only individual citizens but also government employees. As individual citizens, their freedom of speech and free exercise of religion are protected. However, as government employees, they are considered representatives or agents of the government.

Unfortunately the Supreme Court has taken the opening words of the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion") and given them a much broader interpretation than the founding fathers intended.  Not only is Congress prohibited from establishing religion (as the Amendment specifically states), but the Court says that all government entities (including schools and/or teachers) are prohibited from establishing religion or even giving the appearance of establishing religion.  A lot of misunderstanding has risen out of this broad interpretation.  

Basically, to avoid "establishing religion," a classroom discussion about religion must be relevant to the curriculum and presented objectively. As long as the teacher presents the information without "preaching" or giving personal opinions, religious topics such as God, Bible, faith, etc. may be discussed in the public classroom. The class must look at all angles of the subject, both secular and religious, and the presentation must be done objectively. Matthew Staver, founder of the Liberty Counsel, explains it this way:

The Supreme Court has interpreted the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment essentially to mean that government must remain neutral in matters of religion. In other words, government may neither actively promote, nor affirmatively oppose, religion. In the context of a public school teacher, to be neutral is to be objective. To be objective, a teacher must present all facets of a subject, both secular and religious. So long as the teacher presents both secular and religious aspects of a subject matter in an objective manner, the teacher may bring religion into any topic....a public school teacher may objectively teach the Bible and discuss the life of Jesus during history, literature, geography, sociology, or other similar class curriculum.

...While a teacher may not use the classroom to indoctrinate students, a teacher may disseminate information in an objective manner so long as the information is reasonably related to the curriculum. Indeed, no subject can be thoroughly taught without some discussion of religion....Geography, sociology, mathematics, physics, science, English, spelling, history, and any other topic cannot be adequately discussed without also objectively overviewing religion and religious influences..[2]

Godís servants in education must listen to the guiding of the Holy Spirit when preparing lesson plans. He will not lead His children to do that which does not glorify Him. A Christian teacher needs to be bold and yet heed the advice of the apostle Paul, "show uncorruptness, gravity, sincerity, sound speech, that cannot be condemned, so that he that is of the contrary part may be ashamed, having no evil thing to say of you" (Titus 2:7-8). There are many, many wonderful opportunities for sharing Godís Word with students in public schools. However, care must be taken to be sure the lessons are truly from the Lord and are presented in ways which are honoring to Him. A Christian teacher who oversteps the bounds of the law, brings dishonor to the Lord.

"Lessons about Christianity can--and should--be taught with enthusiasm," writes Eric Buehrer, founder of Gateways to Better Education, "but it is important for Christian public school educators to refrain from evangelizing in the classroom. Appeals for students to make faith commitments are not permitted...We must have the integrity to honor the trust that parents give us when we teach their children. If Christian public school teachers try to use their classrooms for witnessing opportunities, they prove to the world that Christians cannot be trusted."[3]  Christian teachers must prove themselves to be law-abiding citizens, setting good examples by their speech and actions.

In conclusion, time and effort must be spent on resources outside the textbook and teacherís manual in oder for a Christian teacher to be adequately equipped for teaching about religion within the curriculum. That intense preparation must be accompanied by a burning desire to discuss faith and religion in the classroom, a sense of being inspired and called to this task by God. Finally, preparation and inspiration must be reinforced with conviction and determination:  (1) conviction that discussing religion in the public classroom is legally permitted, and (2) determination to stay within the legal guidelines. When those four key ingredients--preparation, inspiration, conviction, and determination--all mesh together, dynamic discussion and learning will take place. Then God will say, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant" (Matthew 25:21)..

NOTES

  1. Tinker v. Des Moines School District, 393 U.S. 503 [court documents on-line] (U.S. Supreme Court, 1969, accessed 17 July 2002); available from http://laws.findlaw.com/ur/393/503.html; Internet.
  2. Matthew D. Staver, Esq, Teacherís Rights on Public School Campuses [article on-line] (Orlando, FL: Liberty Counsel, 2000, accessed 15 July 2002), sections B and C; available from http://www.lc.org/Resources/teachers_rights_0900.html; Internet.
  3. Eric Bueher, Keeping the Faith: Integrate Faith and the Public Schools Without Mixing Church and State [article on-line] (Lake Forest, CA: Gateways to Better Education, 2001, accessed 15 July 2002); available from http://www.gtbe.org/news/index.php/1/17/177.html; Internet.

The contents of this article reflect the authorís views acquired through research and experience. The author is not engaged in rendering any legal professional service. The services of a professional person are recommended if legal advice or assistance is needed. The author and ChristianTeacher.org disclaim any loss or liability to any person or entity with respect to loss or damage caused, or alleged to be caused, directly or indirectly by the utilization of any information contained in this article.

All right reserved. Copyright ©2002 by B. Jane Kulp

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