Sunday, March 7, 2010

Teacher suspended for denying Wiccan altar

A teacher at the Guthrie Center High School in Iowa was put on five-day unpaid suspension for not allowing one of his students to build a Wiccan altar. Dale Halferty is the industrial arts teacher at the high school and did not allow a senior in his class to build the Wiccan altar because Halferty felt “it's offensive to worship rocks and trees…I am just trying to be moral. I don't know how we can profess to be Christians and let this go on." Halferty feels his suspension is misguided because he was merely acting as a good Christian. Halferty is upset that the school is making him act against his Christian beliefs and for allowing students to be exposed to beliefs he feels are wrong and bad for youth. When the student told Halferty that he was a practicing Wiccan and the table he was building was actually a Wiccan altar, Halferty said he could continue with the project as long as the student kept any religious materials at home. The student then began bringing a book of witchcraft with him to class. It was then that Halferty told the student he couldn’t continue building his altar. However, Halferty claims he was not discriminating against the Wiccan religion; he said he had previously told another student he could not build a cross in his class because he firmly believes in the separation of church and state. School officials placed Halferty on suspension for violating at least one school policy, and because state and federal law prohibits the discrimination of a student’s religious beliefs in school assignments. The principal of the school has said that Halferty will be allowed to return to work and will not suffer further consequences if he allows the student to build his altar. The principal equated his decision to “it's sort of like, what if I had a biology teacher who does not want to teach evolution? If a teacher doesn't do the job to which they are assigned, they are insubordinate." If Halferty refuses to return to the classroom, the superintendent will then decide what to do, and the school board will make any decisions regarding termination of employment.

This article focuses primarily on religious expression in public schools. We have been talking a lot in class about expression of religion in state-funded schools, and this article ties in nicely because it concerns religious expression of a student, as we saw with the case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. The Jehovah’s Witness students in that case were protected from having to salute the American flag due to their religious beliefs, and in this case the student’s freedom of expression rights are similarly being protected by both school policy and state and federal law. An interesting aspect to this instance is the teacher didn’t want the student to build a Wiccan altar because it conflicted with his Christian beliefs, yet he claimed to be a staunch supporter of the separation of church and state. While the teacher claims to have not allowed a student to make a cross previously, it almost seems like the teacher is questioning the legitimacy of the Wiccan religion because of how it is practiced. I think that this is an inappropriate expression of religious belief on the part of the teacher. While Mr. Halferty is entitled to his opinion, he was wrong in telling the student that he could not build the altar, and is especially in the wrong because Mr. Halferty used his own religious beliefs as a reason for not allowing the project. Teachers are in positions of authority and should not use that position as a means of preaching their own personal beliefs.

I agree with the suspension of Mr. Halferty because if the school chose to stifle the religious expression of its students, regardless of creed, our schools would quickly start to resemble the purely secular system of France. This is a problem because our Constitutional ideals of religious expression and the separation of church and state are to allow the free expression of religious beliefs, not to completely stifle all religious expression.

13 comments:

Jessica B said...

I think a main issue here is the fact that Mr. Halferty contradicts himself. At first he claims “he still doesn't understand why school officials are forcing him to act against his own beliefs as a Christian and allow the student to disrupt his class with a project based on a religion he believes is wrong and bad for youth.” According to this statement I definitely agree that the students constitutional rights were violated. Mr. Halferty goes on to argue that he had previously told another student he could not build across because he believes in the separation of church and state. Although I think it would be a legitimate ruling for the school to declare that religious pieces could not be made in school, I don’t buy Halferty’s defense. If this were the case he would have had no need to bring his own, irrelevant religious views to the table. I think the school is doing the right thing in suspending this teacher and supporting the student’s right to observe any unconventional religion he so chooses.

E.Levy said...

I think this issue is an interesting one in that we have yet to deal with a case where religious expression in school, by a student is under fire. Clearly there are large issues at stake, for both the school and the state. My question is why the teacher is under fire? He simply is trying to prohibit religion from entering his classroom. Lets say other kids are curious about this witchcraft alter, and a discussion is sparked where religious content is though to the students, then what? By prohibiting all expressions of religion in woodshop, I believe this teacher is doing a great job separating church and state.

Abby P said...

I agree with Jess in that I think that the contradictory statments made by Mr. Halferty are an incredibly interesting aspect of this case. First, Mr. Halferty claimed that he did not believe in the Wiccan religion and therefore did not want a child building something contrary to his beliefs. Then he made the statement that he was a staunch supporter of separation of church and state and that is why he banned a child from building a cross in his class. In this particular case I believe that the school was correct in suspending Mr. Halferty. Not only was he promoting his own religion; he was also inhibiting the student's religion by preventing the student from buiding the altar and by debasing the student's relgion in the process. If the assignment was that students could build whatever they liked, then I believe that the student should not have been penalized for building something religious. Mr. Halferty violated both the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses through his actions and I believe he was rightly punished.

Alicia_W said...
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Alicia_W said...
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Alicia_W said...

This was an interesting article because of how it was approached. Like Jessica and Abby point out, Mr. Halferty does contradict himself in his defense. I feel that he was justified in not allowing the student to make a cross or the other student to make an alter in order to keep religion separate from his classroom. However, once he imposed his own "Christian values" into his reasoning for not allowing the students to make the religious objects was when he crossed the line. I agree that he should be reprimanded for his actions but I also feel like he might have been simply ignorant in how to handle the general situation because of his wavering arguments.

Lauren P said...

I agree that Mr. Halferty’s actions are in direct opposition to the students’ First Amendment rights of freedom of religion. He not only used his own religion, Christianity, as a basis for his actions, but also prohibited students from expressing their religion. However, I do see where possible concern lies with a student making a religious item in woodshop. For example, it could lead to proselytizing of a particular religion within the public school by the student. Although the student as the freedom to express his or her religion, I do not think that he or she should be allowed to proselytize at the public school to other students who are at a very impressionable age. Even though I understand this concern, I still stand behind the school board’s action of suspending Mr. Halferty.

David I said...
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David I said...

I agree with Lauren and Eric's comments. What concerns me is the fact that a student in a public school was attempting to build a religious altar in a public school. Public schools are a place for secular learning, not religious. While Mr. Halferty should not have brought his own religious convictions into the argument, I also do not think the student should have been allowed to build this memorial. It clearly has religious sentiment behind it, and is not appropriate in the classroom. In my own opinion, outside of the school, this student's ideas and religion would be fine, however within a public school, I do not believe this religious project should be allowed. It will be interesting, as we read further into court cases, to see how the court has handled the free exercise clause within schools.

Rob K said...

I think I fall on the side of Eric and other later posts that there really is no place for religion in the classroom. If a teacher cannot display the ten Commandments in his classroom, why then should a student be able to put forth his religious views? If we want to take this a step further, isn't the use of public school property (the wood for this workshop class) for personal religious purposes a violation of many of the court rulings we have already discussed? I know this is a bit extreme, but it is just another element to add to the discussion...

Shannon H. said...

As long as the students were given broad leeway in what they chose to build, I see no problem with one boy’s choice to build a Wiccan altar. I agree with Abby that the student was well within his rights and that Mr. Halferty was out of line. Students’ creative output will necessarily be influenced by their experiences and their beliefs, and I think that as long as it is within the parameters of the assignment, students in art classes should be able to paint religious imagery or symbols, and students in English class should be able to write short stories involving religious practices. The only problem comes in when these things are required by the school.

LaurenL said...

I would have to say that I agree with David, Rob, and the similar posts that state Mr. Halferty was simply doing his job, as a teacher in a public secular school, of preventing religion from entering his classroom. While I do think that he was at fault for saying the Wiccan alter goes against his Christian beliefs, if Mr. Halferty also told another student that he could not build a cross, that strengthens the teacher's argument of his attempt to maintain the separation of church and state.

jpeterson said...

Just because we have a concept of protecting religious rights does not mean that anything goes. So if a student wanted to make a sculpture of Adam and Eve completely naked with detailed anatomy, should we allow that because it's religious expression? If a student painted a picture of a man flipping someone off with the middle finger and claimed it was a religious act, should that be allowed? I can imagine there are some things that should not be permitted in a public school because of its secular nature. However, it kind of goes along with the whole prayer in school thing. If you are not going to allow prayer in school, then how can you allow freedom of religious artistic expression? I'm not sure I agree with the actual prohibition of religious art just as much as I do not agree with the prohibition of prayer. I do think the teacher was completely wrong to bring up his own religious beliefs to prohibit the student from making the altar in the first place.