Proselytizing teachers need to stuff it

JISHOU, HUNAN — Public school teachers — in fact most teachers — should just shut up about their religious preferences. Proselytizing is an abuse of their “bully pulpit.”

The Panda’s Thumb has two articles this week demonstrating the misuse of teacherly authority. One is an update on the ever-continuing John Freshwater saga; the other a report on one teacher’s attempt to haul students to the Creation Museum in Kentucky.

Freshwater is a seventh-grade science teacher in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, who has paraded his particular brand of Christianity — and anti-evolution propaganda — in front of his students for several years. His superiors looked the other way until Freshwater used a Tesla coil to burn a cross shape on the arm of a student. The student and his parents cried foul, and the parties involved are now in a legal thicket.

Freshwater has been the subject of hours of administrative hearings regarding his continued employment. The boy and his family have filed a civil liberties suit against Freshwater and the school system. Freshwater himself has filed his own civil liberties suit against his employers, and another civil suit against the family, alleging they have slandered him.

During the administrative hearings, witnesses reported that Freshwater always had a Bible on his desk (despite his superiors telling him to remove it), maintained a stock of Bibles in a bookcase for students to borrow, had Christian-oriented posters decorating his science classroom, and made a point of teaching students that the theories of evolution and the Big Bang were bogus.

Testimony also revealed that other teachers in the same middle school had similar proclivities, but were somewhat less resistant to correction by their superiors than Freshwater was.

Meanwhile, in the Garden State of New Jersey, a history teacher was planning on hauling students to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky (near Cincinnati), until a former student blew the whistle on him.

A couple of years ago, David Paszkiewicz ended up in the news after declaring to his students that dinosaurs were on Noah’s Ark, and that students who “reject the Lord’s salvation … belong in hell.” Now, as advisor to the Christian Alpha & Omega Club, Paszkiewicz planned to take club members during the school year to the Creation Museum.

A former student heard of the plan, and convinced the local school board to postpone the trip until after the school year ended.

Teachers are of course free to believe whatever religion they like. They can mention their religion to their students if they like, much as a teacher might mention his or her hometown or family members. But it is entirely inappropriate to use the classroom to inculcate a teacher’s particular religious beliefs.

[I am setting aside the obvious exceptions of teachers in religious schools, although even in those situations a teacher can cross the line of appropriateness.]

My argument goes beyond the Constitutional requirement that the government (public schools) not impose or favor a particular religion. Rather, preaching in the classroom is an abuse of power, much as molesting students is, especially when the teacher makes it clear that his or her beliefs are the only correct ones.

For example, Teacher A might be a born-again Christian. His students might be aware that he attends church every Sunday. They may see him reading the Bible on his off-time in school. That’s OK. It’s non-threatening behavior, and if he keeps discussion of his beliefs outside the classroom, perfectly appropriate. One might say Teacher A professes his belief by example.

Teacher B, on the other hand, may also be born-again, but more aggressive in her Christian outreach. In her classes, she might tell students that abortion is a sin, and that abortion doctors and patients are doomed to eternity in Hell. Her classroom might be covered with flagrantly religious posters and literature, and her lecture peppered with Christian messages and Biblical references.

Teacher A is operating within the best practices of a professional educator. Teacher B is not.

Freshwater and Paszkiewicz are confusing teaching with preaching. Schools are not churches. Students and parents expect that a public school or classroom is a religiously neutral zone. Religious beliefs of teachers and students might be acknowledged, but they should not become the focus of the business of teaching.

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