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." 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).
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.
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."
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."  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.
Websterís New Collegiate Dictionary defines "objective" as "external and apart from self-consciousness; ...detached; impersonal; unprejudiced."  Religious information must be presented in an objective manner so that the teacherís personal views are not promoted. There must be no indication that the teacher is attempting to indoctrinate the students or to proselytize (recruit). The teacher must appear to maintain neutrality on the matter under discussion, and opposing viewpoints should also be shared when appropriate.
Most importantly, a Christian teacher should refrain from using the phrase, "I believe...." Such a statement could be considered as "subjective" ("exhibiting or affected by personal bias, emotional background, etc."). However, a teacher may say, "According to the Bible..." Then the statement becomes an objective statement attributed to another source.
In the controversial 1969 case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, the Supreme Court affirmed that students have the right of free expression as long as their show of expression is done "without materially and substantially interfer[ing] with the requirements of appropriate discipline in the operation of the school and without colliding with the rights of others." Schools establish specific discipline standards and procedures in order to maintain an atmosphere conducive to learning. Any behavior, including speech, which disrupts the learning environment is punishable as deemed proper by school authorities. As long as free expression does not disrupt the educational process it is allowed.
Since the 1969 ruling, lower courts have applied the Tinker decision to cases related to a teachers' freedom of expression as well as that of students. The consensus has been that the same rules apply. Therefore, a Christian teacher may include discussion of religion in a lesson as long as it causes no interference with work and no disorder.
Finally, presenting material of a religious nature in the public school classroom must be clearly curriculum-related. The Christian teacher must be able to justify including a religious topic in the lesson plans. Fortunately, the government is quite open about allowing subject-related discussion of religion as long as it is done objectively and does not incite disruptive behavior. The following paragraph from U.S. Department of Education guidelines lists many uses of religious information which are considered appropriate:
Teaching about religion: Public schools may not provide religious instruction, but they may teach about religion, including the Bible or other scripture: the history of religion, comparative religion, the Bible (or other scripture)-as-literature, and the role of religion in the history of the United States and other countries all are permissible public school subjects. Similarly, it is permissible to consider religious influences on art, music, literature, and social studies. Although public schools may teach about religious holidays, including their religious aspects, and may celebrate the secular aspects of holidays, schools may not observe holidays as religious events or promote such observance by students.
These are the openings a Christian teacher may legally use to let God and the Bible shine forth in the classroom: history, literature, social studies, art, music, and holidays. No matter how secular the demands of the curriculum may seem, religion may be introduced. "God is light" (1 John 1:5). When He is invited into the classroom, darkness and despair disappear.
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.
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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