The story Juniper Russo related was downright shocking: Her daughter’s public school teacher had instructed a classroom full of students how to “torture a Jew.”
Juniper’s daughter, a middle-school student in Chattanooga, Tenn., had signed up for an elective course called “Bible History.” Although the Russos are Jewish, they assumed the class taught by a public school would be objective and balanced.
“Despite being supposedly taught from a non-sectarian point of view, the entire class has been nothing but blatant Christian proselytizing,” Russo wrote on Facebook. She noted that the teacher told students a story about an atheist student who took a Bible class elsewhere to “‘prove it wrong” and later ended up “realizing it was true.” This is not the kind of tale you tell during an objective course.
Continued Russo, “My daughter showed me a copy of a test question where she was asked to mark the statement, ‘It is important to read the Bible even if you are not Christian or Jewish, as true or false, with her answer of ‘false’ marked as incorrect. Any competent educator knows that an opinion statement cannot be categorized ‘true or false,’ and that grading students on whether their opinion matches the teacher’s is unethical.
Russo reported to AU that her daughter’s class watched videos by The Bible Project, an organization that proselytizes for fundamentalist Christianity. One animated video showed a forked road, “with Christianity represented by light, sunshine, and color on one side, and all other global religions represented by storms, darkness, and shadows on the other.”
Things came to a head, Russo wrote, after the teacher wrote an English transliteration of the Hebrew name of God, which many Jews do not speak out loud, on a white board and told the students, “If you want to know how to torture a Jew, make them say this out loud.”
The good news is that Americans United is on the case. Yesterday, AU’s legal team sent a detailed letter to officials in the Hamilton County public school system, warning them that class, as currently taught, is blatantly unconstitutional.
“Simply put, this class is not academic study of the Bible; it is a Sunday-school class,” AU Staff Attorney Ian Smith wrote to school officials. “There is no academic discussion of any of the material, instead it is bare recitation of devotional Biblical stories and memorization of proselytizing passages. Christianity is endorsed and other religions are mocked and denigrated. All of this is a flagrant violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
AU President and CEO Rachel Laser put it bluntly in a media statement: “Our country’s foundational promise of church-state separation means that all children should be treated equally and feel included in our public schools. What happened to Juniper Russo’s daughter and her classmates was unconscionable – no child should be taught that their faith is wrong or that people should be ‘tortured’ because of their religious beliefs.”
Here’s the kicker: Hamilton County school officials should be all too familiar with the constitutional requirements for teaching a Bible class because a federal court struck down a previous version they offered in 1980.
School officials say they’re looking into the matter, but the abuses here are so extensive that nothing less than a complete overhaul of this class – or, preferably, getting rid of it entirely – will do. While they’re at it, the district should peruse the “Know Your Rights” guides that AU produced for students, families and parents about their religious-freedom rights and responsibilities in public schools. It sounds like they need a refresher on how to teach – not preach – about religion in public schools.
P.S. AU’s attorneys are available to review concerns about potential religious-freedom violations in your community. You can report them to us here.