“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
~ First Sixteen Words of the First Amendment
The Constitution guarantees each of us religious freedom: the right to believe what you want, or not believe at all. Preaching and teaching are very different things. Telling teachers and school officials that they can’t preach to their students does not in any way bar our educators from teaching about religion.
The reason for this becomes clear when you stop and think about the mandate of public education in a pluralistic society. Public schools should give all kids an equal sense of belonging and respect their rights. School boards, principals and teachers must embrace this reality, and this means they must not be in the business of deciding which religious beliefs matter for students, and which don’t.
These examples are not hypothetical, but plucked from the plethora of choices in the news. This is not an uncommon occurrence:
An elementary school teacher walks around her classroom in Louisiana asking each of her young students what they want to pray for, they bow their heads and she recites a Christian prayer. But not all of her students are Christian. Do they opt out and risk being ostracized?
A coach in Michigan leads his players in prayer on a public high school football field after the games. But not all the kids agree with the coach’s faith, and some are not religious at all. Do they not participate, but then have to worry about the coach retaliating and not letting them play in the next game?
Preaching in public schools also undermines the unifying role public schools play in our communities. More than 90 percent of our nation’s children attend public schools. Those institutions are open to all students regardless of religion, race or ability; they should be safe spaces that enable all students to learn and grow. Public schools bring us together across our differences, rather than divide us because of them.
Religion’s effect on humanity and American life in particular is undeniable — and profound. In fact, you simply can’t understand subjects such as history, art, music, literature and even science without grasping how religion has shaped our thinking. So, it can be argued that a public school teacher should have the right to discuss religion with students — as long as it’s part of a legitimate program of instruction. American society is grounded in religious freedom. We should celebrate, treasure and honor this right and the diversity it fosters whether you’re Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh or any of the multitude of other religious belief system or not a believer at all.