Neutral, but respect creationism?
Neutrality toward religion cuts both ways
By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center
By now, it should be axiomatic that public school teachers can't take sides in religion.
After all, the Supreme Court has been hammering this point home for more than 60 years. Under the First Amendment's establishment clause, public schools must be neutral toward religion - meaning neutral among religions and neutral between religion and non-religion.
But two new court decisions - both from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals - suggest that "neutrality" is viewed by some schools and judges as a one-way street. Teacher promotion of religion was struck down as unconstitutional, but teacher denigration of religion got a pass.
In the "promotion" case, math teacher Bradley Johnson was told by the school district to remove from his classroom walls several huge banners with patriotic one-liners emphasizing references to "God" and "Creator." School officials were concerned that the displays sent a school-endorsed sectarian message in violation of the establishment clause (Johnson vs Poway Unified School District).
Johnson sued, and won the first round when a federal district court ruled that the school had engaged in viewpoint discrimination by allowing other teachers to put up classroom displays with a variety of messages (some with references to religion), but disallowing Johnson's banners.
On Sept. 14, however, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed the lower court decision, ruling that public school officials have the authority to determine what gets put on classroom walls.
Although Johnson's school did allow teachers some freedom to decorate their classrooms, the court sided with the school district by concluding that the banners "as organized and displayed by Johnson" conveyed a religious message.
A few weeks earlier, the same appeals court was far less concerned about "neutrality" in deciding a case involving alleged teacher hostility to religion (C.F. v. Capistrano Unified School District). On Aug. 19, the court dismissed a lawsuit against James Corbett, a high school history teacher in Mission Viejo, California, accused by a student of repeatedly making derogatory comments about religious faith.
A lower court had singled out only one of the teacher's statements - that creationism was "superstitious nonsense" - as an establishment clause violation. The appeals court, however, found no constitutional problem with anything Corbett had said in class about religion, including the creationism putdown.
The 9th Circuit acknowledged that "at some point a teacher's comments on religion might cross the line and rise to the level of unconstitutional hostility." But because there haven't been cases drawing that line, the court "cannot conclude that a reasonable teacher standing in Corbett's shoes would have been on notice that his actions might be unconstitutional."
It's true that few legal precedents define the parameters of teacher hostility to religion in a public school classroom. But the Supreme Court's insistence on school neutrality between religion and non-religion should be precedent enough.
Writing for the Court majority in Abington v. Schempp (a 1963 decision striking down school-sponsored religious exercises), Justice Tom Clark made clear that "the State may not establish a 'religion of secularism' in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion."
Moreover, for almost two decades, education, religious and civil liberties groups, as well as the U.S. Department of Education, have disseminated First Amendment guidelines explaining that although teachers may teach about religion, they may neither inculcate nor denigrate religion.
In my view, the 9th Circuit was right to bar promotion of religion in the classroom. But fair is fair.
If religious people are to accept that their faith cannot be privileged in schools, then they need to be assured that hostility to their faith will not be tolerated, either.
Teachers should have more academic freedom than they presently enjoy. But when religion is involved, teachers should not be free to impose either a religious or an anti-religious viewpoint on students.
Apply the First Amendment fairly and teacher "neutrality" will cut both ways.
Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, Washington, D.C.
Dear Editor -
Charles Haynes' commentary regarding neutrality towards religion within the public school system sounds good on the surface, and I certainly agree with his premise, but he used the wrong example to illustrate hostility to religion by a teacher. He discussed a teacher that had repeatedly labeled creationism as "superstitious nonsense," and, according to Haynes, that clearly shows hostility toward religion by a school teacher.
That is interesting. Intelligent Design/Creationism advocates continually insist that their views are NOT religious in nature, but rather are a valid scientific alternative to evolutionary biology. Despite losing in federal court every single time, they are still trying to push this "scientific" theory into the science classrooms. Yet, Mr. Haynes argues just the opposite: that a public school teacher making disparaging remarks about creationism is showing overt hostility to religion.
Well, which is it? Is creationism a religious belief or a scientific theory? If it is a religious belief, then it has no place in a science classroom. If it is a scientific theory, then it is wide open to experimentation, analysis, and criticism by the scientific community, i.e. it has to go through the same scientific peer review that everything else in the science textbooks has to undergo. I'm sorry, creationists, but you can't have it both ways. You can't present a "scientific" theory that is protected from criticism because it is a religious belief.
This example underscores the problem with Mr. Haynes' logic. Interpretation is everything. Disparaging remarks by a teacher regarding Jesus, Muhammad, Vishnu, or Moses are clear examples of hostility towards religion, and should be dealt with severely within the public school setting, but what about concepts like creationism or flood geology that simply have their source in religion? These ideas attempt to compete with solid science on an equal footing. Are teachers not allowed to (rightly) disparage these ideas, based on scientific facts, simply because the deeply devout accept them on faith alone?
If teachers are forced to show respect to ridiculous ideas that are clearly wrong but strongly supported by the devout, what message does that send to students? Should teachers respect the Hindu belief that the universe rests on the back of a giant tortoise? How is that any different from Adam and Eve, a talking snake, and a magic fruit tree? Teachers should probably avoid the subject altogether, but if it comes up, they should NOT put such beliefs in the same category of respect as basic physics, biology, mathematics, and chemistry. This is not an expression of hostility towards religion, but rather an insistence on common sense and reason. Teachers are supposed to educate, not indoctrinate.
Too often, however, this approach is interpreted as an attack on religion. In northern California, a science teacher that flat-out refused to discuss creationism at all was accused of hostility toward Christian beliefs. He told his students, in advance of his discussion of evolutionary theory, that, according to Federal law, creationism did not belong in a science classroom, and they were free to explore creationism on their own at home or in church. I am still trying to understand how the deeply devout can somehow twist those obviously truthful statements into some sort of attack on Christianity. Oh, and they lost in court. Again.
Mr. Haynes is correct in a broad sense: it is imperative that public school teachers remain neutral on issues of religion and/or non-religion. The public classrooms are a microcosm of today's American society, with children from athiest or agnostic families rubbing shoulders with children from Christian, Catholic, Mormon, Hindu, and Muslim families. Treading on religious or cultural toes will only create problems. However, let's not go overboard in interpreting hostility.
Bad ideas are bad ideas, irrespective of their religious roots. There is no harm in teachers ridiculing flat-earth theory, flood geology, creationism, segregation, etc etc etc...
Question for discussion: is it really worthwhile writing these letters to the newspapers? Does it reach enough people, or even accomplish anything? If we could reach enough "fence sitters" we might start to tip the scales toward reason and away from superstition, but what medium works best?