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Quiet time

Back to School 2004 | Fear of litigation muzzles expressions of faith

Issue: "Education: Sick schools," Sept. 18, 2004

At 28, Sharla Megilligan hadn't expected to be called to the principal's office. But in April, that's exactly where she wound up-explaining herself to Lewis Lazaro, principal of Maplewood Elementary School in Austin, Texas.

By then, Ms. Megilligan, executive director of an educational nonprofit, had already volunteered for five months as a mentor to "Brandy," a fifth-grader. Under a district mentoring program, she visited the local elementary school once a week, eating lunch with Brandy and her friends and hanging out at recess for fun, companionship, and girl talk. The girls called her Sharla.

But trouble surfaced one day after Brandy asked Sharla a question: "Do you have a boyfriend?"

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"No," Sharla replied, smiling. "If you did, would you live with him?" Brandy asked.

"No."

"Why not?" Brandy pressed. "Everybody does that."

Knowing that the school taught a curriculum about "healthy choices," Sharla chose her words carefully. She explained that, no, everybody doesn't do that, and not doing so was a choice she'd made for herself. Brandy pushed for details, and Sharla mentioned "previous discussions we'd had about the Bible. I told her my choices were based on what I believe the Bible says. . . . I felt I was [telling her this] in an appropriate way: Here's what I think, and here's how I choose to live, but not being judgmental of somebody who doesn't choose the same."

But those carefully chosen words landed Ms. Megilligan in hot water. Brandy told a friend of their discussion and the friend told her mother, who called the principal and complained that a school mentor was "talking with the girls about living with men."

Apparently that would have been preferable to the truth. When Mr. Lazaro heard Sharla's version of events, he told her she was not to talk to Brandy about anything involving relationships. "We teach a curriculum on healthy choices," he said, "and sometimes a healthy choice involves living with someone you're not married to."

Mr. Lazaro told WORLD he doesn't remember saying that, but he did say he thought Sharla's conversation with Brandy was inappropriate. He would, he said, handle the situation the same way again.

He's not the only one: Experiences like Sharla Megilligan's are becoming more common in public schools. When it comes to expressing a biblical position, even when expressing personal values in response to a question, teachers, administrators, and mentors keep in the back of their minds the threat of ACLU-style litigation if they speak honestly.

"More teachers don't know their rights than do," said Mathew Staver, a religious civil-liberties attorney for Florida-based Liberty Counsel. It's not surprising that many who identify with Christ muzzle their beliefs for fear of official retaliation-a fear that may be warranted, he said. Four months ago administrators placed South Carolina teacher Jean Byce on paid leave after she told a curious student about her faith in Jesus. Officials suspended Pennsylvania teacher's aide Brenda Nichol after she wore a cross necklace to school and refused to conceal it inside her clothing.

The law is on Ms. Byce's side. Teachers can offer personal beliefs in response to a student's question as long as they make it clear the beliefs are personal and not official, Mr. Staver said. They also may overview the Bible, or use Scripture in their lesson plans-teaching poetry, for example, by using passages from Psalms or Lamentations-as long as material "is presented objectively and is consistent with the curriculum being taught," according to Mr. Staver.

Historically, courts have sided with freedom of expression, beginning in 1969 with Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District. In it the U.S. Supreme Court ruled: "It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." But as hard-line church/state separatists gained influence and media favor, school officials often leaned toward keeping teachers quiet about Christ in order to keep themselves out of court.

In Mr. Staver's view, it is Christian teachers' duty to know their rights. "I see Christian public-school teachers as domestic missionaries to America," he said. "They need to think outside the secular-education box and think through how they can integrate their faith into the public-school classroom."

-with reporting by Joy Lightcap

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