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Shining His Light in a Dark Place

By B. Jane Kulp

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. --First Amendment, Constitution of the United States of America

The First Amendment guarantee of "freedom of speech" includes teachers, counselors, and other educators. In the 1987 case of Edwards v Aguillard the court said, "Individual instructors are at liberty to teach that which they deem to be appropriate in the exercise of their professional judgment."[1] The key to serving God as teachers in public schools is to use "professional judgment" and to find "appropriate" times in the curriculum to mention God or to quote Scripture. Christians not willing to dedicate themselves to disciplined, determined exercise of professionalism should not serve in the public classroom.

Unfortunately, the public rarely hears of the many Christians who are quietly serving God in public education. The media prefer to quote teachers who whine about being boxed in by the rigid demands of bureaucracy. Reporters enjoy interviewing teachers who claim to be stifled and walled in by standards-based curricula, by district-imposed disciplinary and safety procedures, by a plethora of required records and reports, and by established chains of command. Christian teachers who find themselves numbered among those grumblers and complainers, need to withdraw to a quiet place and spend some time with the Chief Administrator.

Christian teachers must trust in the conviction of their calling into public service. They must also be convicted that God expects them to honor and glorify Him from within the boundaries of public education guidelines. God has allowed those walls to be erected. He does not place Christians in the public classroom to have them cry in frustration and bang their heads against the walls. He expects them to "study" and "show themselves approved unto God"--to let His light shine through them so that each may stand as "a workman that needs not to be ashamed"(2 Timothy 2:18).

Government Guidelines

Christian service in public schools should begin with a thorough examination of the governmentís guidelines for public education. At the beginning of the 1995-1996 school year, the U. S. Department of Education distributed to administrators across the nation a pamphlet entitled, "Religious Expression in Public Schools: A Statement of Principles." The document was updated and reissued in 1998.   In a letter which accompanied the pamphlet, Richard W. Riley, former Secretary of Education, stated:

Our history as a nation reflects the history of the Puritan, the Quaker, the Baptist, the Catholic, the Jew and many others fleeing persecution to find religious freedom in America. The United States remains the most successful experiment in religious freedom that the world has ever known because the First Amendment uniquely balances freedom of private religious belief and expression with freedom from state-imposed religious expression.

Public schools can neither foster religion nor preclude it. Our public schools must treat religion with fairness and respect and vigorously protect religious expression as well as the freedom of conscience of all other students. In so doing our public schools reaffirm the First Amendment and enrich the lives of their students.[2]

Many of this countryís founding fathers came here to escape tyranny and persecution. They spent four months debating freedom issues while drafting the Constitution in 1787.  They wanted to create the best government possible. They wanted to ensure that their descendants would not suffer the same indignities they had suffered. Two of the biggest motivators for coming to the new land were (1) freedom of religion and (2) freedom of speech/expression. Therefore, they added the First Amendment to the Constitution in order to specifically insure that the national government would always guard and defend those two freedoms.

Our government is based on tolerance. Public schools are government entities, and public school teachers are government employees. As part of the government, they are bound by the Constitution to remain neutral concerning religion and/or religious expression. Therefore, Christian teachers may not promote Christianity over other religions, and they may not repress or show disfavor toward other religions. However, they are not expected to leave their own religion outside the classroom door.

In spite of the term "separation of church and state," there is no actual barricade separating religion and government. Church and state perform together in a precarious balancing act. A political cartoon might properly show church and state positioned at opposite ends of a single platform called "Freedom," but the platform would be sitting precariously on a fulcrum labeled "The Common Good."  God calls Christian teachers to serve in the public schools in order to keep that platform perfectly balanced. His servants are to ensure that religion is treated "with fairness and respect" in the public schools and to "vigorously protect religious expression."[3]

Keys to Christian Service

There are three keys to serving God in public education. John W. Whitehead, founder of The Rutherford Institute, writes: "According to case law, references to religious maters in the public schools are permissible if (1) they are presented objectively; (2) no disruption occurs; and (3) they are relevant to the subject matter." [4] These three criteria are based on a number of court rulings listed in Whiteheadís book. Within these bounds, religion may legally be incorporated into classroom instruction. An effective Christian teacher will learn to use these criteria as keys to open doors of opportunity.

Serving God in the public school is not an easy task. Yet, for the Christian who answers Godís call and accepts the challenge, it can be very rewarding and fulfilling. "Test me now...saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open for you the windows of heaven, and pour out for you a blessing" (Malachi 3:10).  God shining through a Christian teacher can have a lasting effect on the lives of students. "I will lead them in paths that they have not known. I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight" (Isaiah 42:16).

The "boxed-in" Christian teacher needs to remember to seek guidance from the One who is the source of strength and inspiration. The person who feels trapped by rules, procedures, forms, and standards needs to reach out in faith, taking advantage of the many windows of opportunity the Master Carpenter built into the educational structure. As His workmen, Christian teachers must make sure His Light shines through the darkest curriculum. Then the blessings begin.

NOTES

  1. Edwards v. Aguillard, 482 U.S. 578 (1987).
  2. Richard W. Riley, Religious Expression in Public Schools: A Statement of Principles, (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, 1998), in his accompanying letter to principals.  The letter and document are available on-line at http://www.ed.gov/Speeches/08-1995/religion.html.
  3. Ibid.
  4. John W. Whitehead, The Rights of Religious Persons in Public Education, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1991), 100.
  5. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1960), s.v. "objective."
  6. Ibid., s.v. "Subjective."
  7. Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969).
  8. Whitehead, The Rights of Religious Persons, 97.
  9. Riley, Religious Expression in Public Schools.

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

This material may be quoted in written form but give credit where credit is due (authorís name, title of article, and web site address: www.christianteacher.org. It may not be reprinted for commercial publication. It may be copied or reprinted for distribution as long as it is given away and no charge is made for copies, shipping, or handling.


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