Cover Story

Heresy trials

"Heresy trials" Continued...

Issue: "Heresy trials," Aug. 18, 2001

The question is, can religious people teach in the public school without having their faith used against them? Despite its penchant for school-prayer cases, the Supreme Court has remained silent on the issue, save a brief sentence in the Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District (1969) decision stating that neither teachers nor students "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." But that vague language leaves teachers walking a shaky tightrope between their individual rights and their role as state employees. "Schools have a lot of leeway in controlling what is said in the classroom, and they should," said the ACLJ's Mr. Manion. "But at the same time, we shouldn't require teachers to pretend that they do not have religious beliefs. These are not robots that we put in front of the classroom," he said.

In May the Minnesota Court of Appeals backed the Faribault school district: "LeVake's responsibility as a public school teacher to teach evolution in the manner prescribed by the curriculum overrides his First Amendment rights as a private citizen," said the court. Mr. LeVake responded, "That's kind of scary, if you have to check your First Amendment rights at the door as you go in to teach." He is hoping state justices will overturn the ruling.

Meanwhile, Texas fifth-grade teacher Karen Barrow says religious discrimination also destroyed her dreams. After teaching gifted-and-talented classes for five years in Greenville, Texas, a rural community 75 miles south of Dallas, she hoped to become a principal at a local middle school. "I have worked all my life in education, 18 years now, and I wanted to finish my career as an administrator. That was my ultimate goal," said Mrs. Barrow.

Her dream seemed close to fruition in March 1998 when Greenville middle-school principal George Vaughn asked her if she wanted to become his new assistant principal. Mrs. Barrow excitedly responded that the position would be her "dream job." But instead of offering her the position, school officials later asked if she would first remove her children from their Christian school and place them in public school. Mrs. Barrow refused: "I just felt like it would have been very selfish to uproot them so I could advance in my career. I would not do that."

After school administrators hired another candidate, Mrs. Barrow paid a visit to then-Greenville superintendent Herman Smith. "I asked him, 'So as long as my boys attend the Christian school, I will never be able to be an administrator in Greenville?' And he said, 'That's right.' ... It was horrible. It was like everything I had worked for was shattered. I had all this love for the children I teach and yet my own children were being used against me," she said. In July, she filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a federal lawsuit in a Dallas district court. Both are pending.

Meanwhile, left-wing groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Americans United for Separation of Church and State are going on offense. They have warned school officials not to participate in student-led events like "See You at the Pole" (before-school, voluntary prayer around the flagpole) or after-hours religious baccalaureate services.

The legal cases and pressure plays raise the question, is there still room for Christian teachers in governmental education systems that establish one worldview, often known as secular humanism, as the one that must be taught? The answer is yes, as long as the First Amendment still exists, said Kelly Shackelford, a Texas religious freedoms lawyer helping to represent Mrs. Barrow. He cited a little-known part of the controversial Santa Fe Independent School District vs. Doe school prayer decision in which a federal appellate court banned student-led prayer before school football games. The ruling upheld a teacher's right to participate and "be recognized" at after-school religious baccalaureate services. Bottom line: "You don't sign away your religious freedoms just because you work in the public school," said Mr. Shackelford.

The Santa Fe case, of course, did not deal with the deeper questions about classroom integrity that Mr. LeVake's case raises, questions the Supreme Court may soon have a chance to answer.

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