Separation of Church and State

Two hot stories in education news right now involve the ongoing debate over teaching intelligent design in the classroom and school prayer. I am passionate about the issue of separation of church and state with regard to public schools for several reasons. As a parent, I do not want schools indoctrinating my child with religious beliefs that run counter to what I, as her parent, want to teach her. In this country, I am free to practice religion (or not) as I choose, and every religion and various denomination under each religion represents very different ideas. Who gets to choose what is “right”? I am also a proponent of separation of church and state because I think it would be bad for churches. I believe this is what Jesus’ teaching means: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Finally, as a teacher, I would feel uncomfortable supporting religion in public schools, knowing full well that the wide array of religious beliefs of my students.

I currently teach at a private Jewish high school, and it does not bother me at all to support Judaism within the context of my job, because I think it is clearly understood that my students attend a religious institution — their education is not separate from their religion. They have told me some very interesting stories about public school teachers they have encountered. One student said that she had a teacher in the 5th grade who assigned her a seat near the teacher’s desk. Right in front of my student’s desk, on her own desk, the teacher placed a copy of the New Testament. She offered to loan it to the student at any time. She also offered to loan my student her copies of the Left Behind series of Christian fiction by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye. I find the behavior of this teacher reprehensible. Who is she to try to undermine the religious teachings in the home of my student? How might she feel if someone did something similar to her daughter — for example, tried to pass her a copy of the Qu’ran?

As a high school student in marching band, our band held hands and recited the Lord’s Prayer before football games. Our band director was not involved. He passively watched on as we did this. In fact, it was in this circle that I learned the Lord’s Prayer, as my family did not go to church. However, I will say I felt awkward and pressured in that situation. I felt uncomfortable. It seems, though, that my director was following the letter and spirit of the decision made in Engel v. Vitale.

I was actually confronted with a dilemma involving school prayer this week when my students watched The Crucible. At the end of Nicholas Hytner’s movie, John Proctor, Rebecca Nurse, and Martha Corey recite the Lord’s Prayer. In the discussion following the movie, my students, unfamiliar with the New Testament, asked what it was. I told them. One remarked that it sounded kind of like a Psalm. Then another asked me why they would recite it at that time. I explained that it was similar to the Jewish prayer known as the Shema (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”) In fact, I explained, I had read account of Holocaust victims reciting the Shema in much the same circumstances as the three accused witches recited the Lord’s Prayer. I indicated that the Lord’s Prayer had the same prominence for Christians as the Shema did for Jews. Then a student asked if I knew it. I replied that I did. She requested that I recite it. I thought for a second, decided that it would not constitute a violation of my principals, my school’s principles, or my students’ rights, because they were more or less asking not to be taught Christianity, but to hear the Prayer one more time for their own analysis of my claims that it was similar to the Shema, and I recited it. As an English teacher, I am often called upon to explain Biblical allusions to my students. I think it can be done in such a way as to prevent any discomfort or violation of my students’ rights.

There was a time in my life when I was very active in church. I listened to religious radio a great deal at that time. One of the pervasive fears of many of the hosts of the shows on that station was the spread of Secular Humanism. It was out of this fear that the Religious Right’s movement toward homeschooling began to pick up steam. The idea was that our schools were a bastion of Secular Humanism, and if one wanted to ensure their child was brought up with the proper beliefs and morals, it was incumbent upon the parent to shield their child(ren) from those influences, whether that took the form of homeschooling or private Christian schooling. In our country, parents are free to make this decision. I think it is important that parents have the freedom to choose how to educate their child in their religion (or lack thereof). There are countries where state religion and religious freedom exist in tandem. However, there are also countries with dogmatic state religions which actively encourage the obliteration of conflicting religious beliefs and harm those who have divergent religions.

I feel passionately that students should not have to be confronted with the pressure to pray in school or be taught intelligent design in public schools. Because I feel this way, many have asked me about my own religious beliefs. I actually do believe in intelligent design (or, to be more precise, theistic evolution), and I am a Christian who prays. However, I also believe firmly that these two values are religious values, and in choosing to pass these values on to my children, I would not wish her school to be involved.