This time of year, every public school administrator has to know a simple fragment of Constitutional law . It has many implications in the school setting during the holiday season. “Jingle Bells” is okay. Christmas hymns with denominational themes are not.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...” is part of the First Amendment. This segment is called the “Establishment Clause” because it prevents the government and all of it’s federal, state, and local agencies from “establishing” or otherwise becoming entangled in promoting or prohibiting religion.
While we are a democracy, or more precisely a representative republic, a majority with one religious belief cannot use a government agency—in this case, a public school—to impose their religion upon a student.
My student teachers cannot pass my methods course without being able to write out this Establishment Clause letter-perfect from memory. And they all do. I have this absolute requirement because this clause is the foundation for understanding how to handle lessons when teaching science concepts that may contradict particular religious beliefs.
The science teachers I train are not concerned with Christmas carols, but with families that dispute the benefits of blood transfusions, the value of vaccinations, the need for sex education, the concept of evolution, and many other science lessons.
Science teachers in American public schools teach science, not religion. In 1999, when the first of the recent dust-ups occurred over evolution in the Kansas Science Education Standards, I communicated with the famous Oxford professor Richard Dawkins and published his response to the “Alabama insert,” a textbook disclaimer that had to be pasted inside every biology textbook in that state (a requirement that was later overthrown). In e-mail, Professor Dawkins suggested that U.S. teachers should just invite opposing clergy into the science classroom for a debate on evolution versus religion. We cannot do that.
England had a state church. We had a Revolutionary War. We now have the Establishment Clause.
In science and other disciplines, American teachers ask students for “understanding.”
We do not compel “belief.”
If parents do not want their student exposed to ideas that are not in agreement with their religion, Kansas is one of many states that has a religious opt-out. K.S.A. 1111e states that “No child attending a public school in this state shall be required to participate in any activity which is contrary to the religious teaching of the child if a written statement signed by one of the parents or a person acting as parent of the child is filed with the proper authorities of the school attended requesting that the child not be required to participate in such activities and stating the reason for the request.”
Simply stating that the request is based upon religious principles satisfies the “reason.”
Recent world events should cause us to appreciate our Establishment Clause and the way it has established our climate of tolerance. Some theocracies in the Middle East require all women, regardless of belief, to wear head scarfs. To the other extreme, France—also without our Establishment Clause—bans such head scarfs for university students.
Yes, Virginia, there is an Establishment Clause. If you want to believe in Santa Claus, or wear a head scarf tomorrow—that is your choice too.
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia.