I am writing regarding the current controversy about religion in the public schools of Bulloch County as a two-decade veteran of work in the schools of this region.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Given the power teachers have over young minds and souls, the Supreme Court has interpreted this clause to mean that teachers, being government employees, must temporarily lose some of their freedom of religious expression while on the job in order that their actions not influence students toward religious practices their families do not support. Just as a Christian parent might object to a Muslim or Jewish teacher instructing children to never eat pork, equally, a Buddhist or Hindu parent might feel uncomfortable about a Christian teacher modeling for students how to ask Jesus for grace before lunch each day.
However, this does not mean that the rights of public school teachers to practice their religion are entirely erased when they walk into their classroom. Nor does it mean that religion has been or should be banned from our schools. This is because the same amendment also states "Congress shall make no law ... prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]" — which the Supreme Court has interpreted to mean citizens, including teachers, should have as much freedom as possible to practice their faith, so long as their practices do not infringe upon the rights of others.
And there is the rub. This contradiction between freedom from religion versus freedom of religion, contained within the same singular constitutional amendment, has created a great deal of confusion about what is permitted regarding religion in our schools.
Thankfully, years of Supreme Court case law has mapped out compromises that attempt to balance the rights of all concerned. For example, students can wear openly religious clothes to school like the "Jesus Christ, He's the Real Thing" shirt I wore in high school. However, teachers are limited to more discreet expressions of faith, such as a cross on a necklace. Similarly, teachers cannot organize prayers or explicitly religious groups, but students can do so as long as they comply with the same rules as secular groups and activities at the school.
I believe that we can use recent events as an opportunity to openly and honestly discuss how to meet our ultimate goals of protecting the safety and education of our children and respecting the rights of people to either practice or not practice a religion while living, learning, and working side by side. But to do so, we need to be grounded in accurate information, not inflammatory and emotional exaggerations.
Thus, I strongly urge all sides to understand the Supreme Court's compromises as outlined in the Freedom Forum's "A Teacher's Guide to Religion in the Public Schools" — available free online. It is endorsed by the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs and the National Association of Evangelicals and can serve as a starting point for a more productive conversation.
Over the past two decades, Dr. Beck has worked in scores of schools in this region and across the state of Georgia as a staff member of First District Regional Educational Service Agency and a faculty member in the College of Education at Georgia Southern University.