Sunday, September 15, 2013

Child Forbidden From Writing About God in School

Kayne West once said, "If I talk about God my record won't get played."  More recently, an Elementary School student has been told, "If you talk about God your work won't get a grade."

Erin Shead is a 10 year old student at Lucy Elementary who had been assigned to write about someone she idolized.  As a Christian, Erin decided to write about God and Jesus, whom she described as "His Earthly Son."  However, when she turned the assignment in to her teacher, she was told that she would have to choose a new topic and redo the assignment.  Is this fair?  Erin had not only been prohibited to profess her religious views but also had to do the assignment twice.  She did listen to her teacher and redo the assignment, choosing the perhaps equally controversial Michael Jackson as someone else who she idolized.

The school has a policy that forbids promotion of religious ideals within the classroom, but also has no policy preventing students from expressing beliefs on their own accord or in class assignments.  The distinction between the two is critical.  Clearly a teacher cannot teach religion as fact, but teachers are permitted to acknowledge that many people are religious.  Additionally, we must consult the First Amendment, which reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  The question at hand is whether the content in this child's assignment is in violation of the school rule or the first amendment.

Erica Shead, Erin's mother, got involved to try to get an explanation of the school's reasoning on the matter.  Shead expressed how her daughters work had been "cute" and "innocent,"clearly not intending to be opportunistic about promoting her religious beliefs.  She believed her daughter was simply being honest about who she idolized.  They both feel that this has been a case of favoring non-religion over religion.

The school felt differently.  Though their response was brief, school spokesman Christian Ross reminded the Shead's of the school policy that, "teachers are prohibited from promoting religious beliefs in the classroom.  He also stated that the school has no policy prohibiting students from expressing their religious beliefs in class assignments.  Upon further questioning from Shead, the principal stated that the district had spoken to the Shead family about the issue and would not be making any further comments on the matter.

The fundamental issue at hand is the role of religion in the classroom.  Was the teacher justified in preventing Erin from choosing to write about God or were Erin's free exercise rights violated?  The school made their decision based on the establishment clause, fearing that allowing Erin to write about religion in a school setting was not compliant with the school's desire to follow the First Amendment.

I side with the Shead's on this issue.  I believe Erin's free exercise rights have been compromised by the school's willingness to remove all religion from it's classrooms.  The school has admitted that they have no rule preventing students from expressing religious beliefs in their assignments, such as the one Erin was instructed to complete.  Since the teacher would not have been violating the school rule prohibiting the promotion of religious principles, I do not feel that the teacher was compelled to act.

I also do not believe allowing Erin to express her religious beliefs in this assignment is a violation of the establishment clause.  The nature of the assignment is personal, choosing someone who is an idol to the specific individual.  The teacher was not in violation of the establishment clause in giving the assignment, but neither was Erin in choosing God as her idol to share with her class.  If the assignment was to write about one's personal religion, perhaps I would feel differently, but this assignment was very broad.  I do not believe that the establishment rights of other classmates would be compromised by listening to Erin share her assignment with the class.  Erin has a right to express her belief in a personal, explanatory way.  If she began to preach to the class and attempt to convert classmates, then she would be violating the establishment clause.  However, as long as it is personal and simply informative, I believe Erin should have been allowed to write about God.  Do you agree?


Gabby D. said...

I agree with Dan in siding with the student, Erin. Dan's line stating that the school "has no policy preventing students from expressing beliefs on their own accord or in class assignments" is really the clear argument in this case.

Religion in a classroom setting is and has always been controversial, and I could see how it would be especially controversial in this aspect considering the school has an established rule where no religious ideas are allowed to be taught.

However, since this was an individual project that is represented to be extremely personal, I don't think Erin is infringing on anyone with her paper. Dan also raises a good point in saying that it is unfair that the child had to re-write the assignment just because her topic was deemed inappropriate (on a relatively faulty basis).

In the end, avoiding the establishment of religious teachings in public schools is crucial and a fundamental rule that has been in our school systems for a while. However, letting this student write a personal essay about her religious beliefs isn't infringing on any other person and isn't violating any sort of establishment clause.

Cori T said...

I agree with both Gabby and Dan that since the school has no policy prohibiting the students from expressing religious beliefs that the child should be allowed to do so.
On top of this, I find it hard for the school to argue that the child was using the assignment as an opportunity to spread her religious beliefs. The child's work was probably a completely innocent response toward the prompt. If the teacher felt that it was in some ways promoting a religion, then perhaps he/she could just not share the assignment with other students.

SC said...

And here we have another farcical denial of freedom of religion! It's actually quite easy for me to take a side this time. In no way, shape, or form was Erin trying to promote religion when she wrote her essay. She merely followed the trite prompt given to her. Even if she was promoting her religion, I’m not even sure if the school should be allowed to forgive that. I see no problem with a student expressing their love for their faith, as long as it does not harm the other students. I really hope the school makes this issue right.

SC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tyler J said...

I too agree that the student, Erin Shead, should have been allowed to write about God in her assignment.
One issue I had with the school's reasoning was when they said, "the school has no policy prohibiting students from expressing their religious beliefs in class assignments". Clearly, that is exactly what Erin did, and yet she was rebuked by her teacher and forced to redo her assignment. Also Cori touched on something I completely agree with - the innocence of the girl. A ten year old is not likely to incite her classmates to convert to her religion. If she were to share her assignment in class, it would be expressing a personal opinion, which we do daily with many other subjects in our academic lives.
It was wrong of the school to take the stance they did, but then when the mother asked for an explanation (and attempted to explain her daughter's reasoning), they further defended themselves and the teacher instead of listening and trying to reason the situation out.

Maggie S. said...

I am in agreement with the above posts, that this was an infringement on Erin's free exercise. The statement by the school official that teachers aren't allowed to endorse religion, makes little sense in this case. The teacher was not saying that she herself idolized Christ, it was the student, and Erin is entitled to her own opinion just as some other student might write about some other awkward or touchy subject--kids say things all the time because they've picked it up somewhere else and it's doubtful she would have realized that perhaps her subject was better suited for a different context, but at the end of the day it was who she chose. This also could be a question about the legitimacy of the policy itself, which prevents students from expressing beliefs "in class assignments," which seems much less important than preventing teachers or administrators from imposing their beliefs on students.

Dylan Smith said...

But what if Erin secretly wanted to inspire and convert her teacher, and therefore cause the teacher to express those views in the classroom and violate the school's rule?