One issue that comes up often, whether in debate or legal actions, is the question of whether public school teachers and administration officials should be permitted to engage in religious activities with their students during school. I’ve had this debate with fair frequency in discussions with religious friends and acquaintances, who often take the position that denying teachers this venue is an imposition on the instructors’ religious freedoms. This is frequently supplemented with the argument that everyone, teachers and administrators included, should be permitted to express their religious views at school as a means of furthering debate. These are both, in my opinion, highly specious arguments.
Firstly, when a teacher attempts to lead their students in any religious activity, this does not constitute an exercise of their own religious freedoms so much as it is an imposition on those of the students. Like it or not, when acting as a teacher in a public school, the teacher does not speak merely for themselves. They represent the authority of the government in the most tangible manifestation most children encounter prior to adulthood. And that authority is constitutionally barred from being used to tell people what religious position they should adopt.
Teachers, on their own time and as private citizens, are entitled to have and promote whatever religious position they like. But when they are “on the clock” as government authorities, they are bound by the strictures the law places on government.
Secondly, the “fair debate” argument holds no water because it simply is not possible to have a fair debate in a school setting when the teachers and administrators are allowed to take a side. You have to realize what teachers and school administrators are: they are trained public speakers, often with years of experience and specialized education specifically aimed at persuading young people to accept what they are saying. The “fair debate,” argument proposes to take such people, cloak them in government authority, and set them loose against children in an environment where they are isolated from their parents and guardians for hours at a time and their future success is perceived to be dependent on the good opinion of their instructors. To grant that teachers and administrators can advocate their religious positions under such conditions can be nothing more than an indoctrination exercise.
One might argue that, so long as everybody is allowed to advocate for their beliefs, it will all even out. That might be true if all views were evenly represented in the population, and no social pressures existed to favor adherents of one view over another. But that doesn’t reflect reality. The fact is that the vast majority of Americans are Christian of some denomination or another, which emphasizes proselytization to a greater degree than many other religious positions. Furthermore, many people live in communities where real social penalties are enacted against those who express minority religious opinions, which would further suppress their ability to advocate openly for their views. The sheer weight of numbers slants the debate. In most schools throughout the US, an “open debate” policy allowing faculty to advocate their religion to students would be a de facto government endorsement of Christianity.
But even if you could ensure the debate would truly be fair and representative, it would be problematic for another reason. And that is that people would be using the authority of their government position to wage ideological campaigns for the religious sensibilities of other people’s children. It pits educators against each other, and against the parents of the children, in ways that are totally inappropriate for the furtherance of public education.
Now, to many who advocate in favor of having teachers carry on such debates, the fact that they can’t possibly be fair is a benefit, because their real goal is to use the school setting to indoctrinate other people’s children into Christianity. To many others, the idea simply seems benign because they are already Christian and don’t mind having that idea reinforced to their children at school. Many have discovered, though, that just because two people share the same generic religious label does not mean they actually believe the same things. Imagine how a religious parent would feel to have their child come home and tell them that their teacher says they’re going to hell because they are the wrong kind of Christian. That sort of thing tends to shed a whole new light on the debate for those parents.
These arguments are equally applicable to atheism. An atheist teacher should no more be using their position in school to tell children their gods don’t exist than a religious one should be using it to tell them they do.
Government neutrality, the separation of church and state, exists for very good reasons. It protects the rights of religious minorities, and it also protects the rights of the majorities. Not least because people may perceive themselves to be in the majority when they actually aren’t, but also because demographic changes all but guarantee that no group remains the majority forever. It is not safe for anyone to assume that the power to enforce a religious viewpoint on a population will always be used to enforce their viewpoint, no matter how much they think they enjoy the majority position at the moment. Battles for religious supremacy can only be harmful, and nowhere is this truer than when the battleground is the halls that are meant to shelter and educate our children.
The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of the Lancaster Freethought Society or any of its members.