May 2016 Church & State | Editorial

Some people believe they know better than you how to raise your children when it comes to religion. And some of these people work in public schools.

The Washington Post recently ran a long article about a group called the Christian Educators Association International (CEAI). This organization consists of men and women who work in public schools and view them as mission fields for their version of fundamentalist Christianity.

In the story, some members of the CEAI took pains to claim that they respect the law and don’t overtly preach to youngsters in their classrooms. That may not be quite accurate. Americans United’s attorneys have over the years had to deal with several cases of teachers who decided they wanted to be preachers in class.

No one should assume that the members of CEAI who say they follow the law actually do so. In the article, several talked about keeping Bibles on their desks and playing Christian music in class. They hope students will observe these actions and ask about religion. At that point, under CEAI’s theory, the teacher can start proselytizing because the student initiated the conversation.

Such claims have little legal support. Courts have ruled consistently that public school teachers have no right to preach to their charges, no matter who starts the conversation.

The job of a public school teacher is to instruct young people about secular subjects. A teacher’s private religious views must remain just that – private.

This isn’t just a question of the law requiring that public schools be neutral on theology. There are other important issues at play. Chief among them is parental rights.

Parents have the right to decide what religion, if any, they will expose their children to. Parents have the right to decide if a child will be baptized or go through some other religious ritual at birth or later. Parents get to decide what religious instruction a child will receive. Parents get to decide if their child will attend a church, synagogue, mosque or receive secular ethical training.

When public school teachers decide to preach to children, they are in effect saying that parents have made the wrong choice. These teachers are saying they know better than a child’s own parents what is best for that child. They are substituting their own religious beliefs for the beliefs of the parents.  

This isn’t just illegal, it’s unethical and arrogant.

It also violates basic notions of decency. A fundamentalist Christian parent would undoubtedly be upset if his or her child were pressured to convert to liberal Christianity or a non-Christian faith by a public school teacher. So how then can they support any version of classroom proselytism?

Fundamentalist Christian teachers have the right to attend the house of worship of their choosing, pray, read the Bible, etc. when they’re off duty. When on the job, they must focus on their primary duty: imparting secular education. Those who can’t or won’t stick to this should do the honest thing and resign.