What happens when public schools cross the line by promoting personal religious views in their classrooms? One Texas parent — a religious studies scholar — explains what happened to her family in this cross-post (with permission) from Scribalishess. Susan M. Pigott is a professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at a small, liberal arts university in west Texas. She’s married and has two amazing kids. Her family also includes five cats and two dogs, and her favorite hobbies are writing, photography, and geeky tech gadgets. The views expressed in this post are her own.
I remember driving to Chili’s with my hands clenched on the steering wheel, knuckles turning white. It wasn’t the Abilene traffic (though I could write a blog post about Abilene drivers . . .) No. It was the story that was slowly, painfully unfolding as my son spoke. I was gently (I think) nudging him to reveal more and more about his day in fifth grade at a public elementary school. I was so angry by the time we reached Chili’s that it’s a wonder we didn’t get kicked out of the restaurant.
We were heading to Chili’s to meet my husband for dinner. My son’s story began with a shrug and a quiet sentence, “Mr. X said that vegetarianism is wrong.”
“What?” I asked–a bit too stridently. My boy at first hesitated to say more.
“No, tell me. What did he say?” I asked, a little more gently.
“Well,” my son said, “We were reading this book for class. And in the book, this boy has to live in the wilderness for a long time just eating what he could find. And at some point the boy says he really misses hamburgers.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Well, then Mr. X got out his Bible and told us that the Bible says vegetarianism is wrong. He started quoting a bunch of verses about meat and how you shouldn’t feel guilty about eating it and how vegetarians are less healthy than other people.”
“What?” I sort of shrieked. This was when my knuckles turned white. You see, my kids and I are vegetarians. We have been for years. And here was a teacher, a person my son looked up to, telling the class that vegetarianism is wrong. That it’s against the Bible. That it’s unhealthy.
I was beyond furious. I explained to my son that Mr. X was using the Bible incorrectly. That those verses he was quoting weren’t about vegetarianism at all, but about meat sacrificed to idols.
But I could tell he was deeply hurt by what his teacher had said.
By that time we were at Chili’s (yes, you can get vegetarian meals at Chili’s, in case you’re worried about hypocrisy). I was boiling. We sat at our booth, and I asked my son to tell Daddy what he had told me, because I was so livid I couldn’t see straight. My son told his story.
Then he added, “Oh. And he also told us we didn’t come from monkeys and he quoted Genesis 1.”
That was it. I was ready to hunt down Mr. X and teach him a thing or two about the Bible. You don’t mess with a Bible professor’s kid, teaching him crap theology in a public school classroom. Mr. X had no business saying what he said. I could barely stay in the booth.
My husband was also furious. But he was able to ask our son more questions in a calm, even-spirited way that didn’t involve throwing Bibles at Mr. X. We reassured Nathaniel that (a) Mr. X was ignorant about what the Bible actually said about vegetarianism and creation and (b) that Mr. X was wrong to use the Bible in a public school classroom. We also told him that we would talk to Mr. X about this, which clearly made our son uncomfortable. But we agreed that Daddy would speak with Mr. X kindly and that Mommy would not be in attendance because Mommy would probably hit Mr. X over the head with her Hebrew Bible (which is very big and very heavy).
As much as I wanted to speak to Mr. X, I realized that this was probably the best course of action. I really am not able to talk civilly to someone who uses the Bible in this way, especially someone who attacks my child while doing it.
Kelly consulted a lawyer who had spoken on issues of church and state in our university chapel. He explained to her what had happened so he could be sure that this teacher had violated the law. After discussing the issue with her, my husband felt confident about approaching the teacher.
The meeting went well in terms of how the teacher responded to hurting our son. He said that he did not know our son was a vegetarian and that he was not targeting him when he did his anti-vegetarian rant. In fact, my husband said, the teacher had tears in his eyes when he learned he had hurt our son.
However, when confronted with the fact that using his Bible in class was a violation of the first amendment, the teacher was defensive. He refused to acknowledge that he had done anything wrong .
We decided, for the sake of our son and our daughter, that pursuing the matter further would only bring negative attention to them. So, we let it go.
In the spring of that year, I filled out a form for the school that requested feedback from parents. On the form, I complained about the overt Christianity that I saw in the school, both in the teaching and in the Jesus posters plastered on various classroom walls.
I received a call from the principal. He was concerned about my comments and wondered what had provoked them. I explained that I had seen posters proclaiming things like “Jesus Loves You” in classrooms, and I also told him about the “We didn’t come from monkeys” lecture by my son’s teacher. His reply was, “I’d rather have our teachers teaching the Bible than Darwinism, wouldn’t you?” I was dismayed. The rest of the conversation went downhill from there .
Fortunately, our son’s experience in fifth grade was an isolated incident, as far as I know. In fact, we have been very happy with most of our children’s teachers and feel that they are getting an excellent education in the Abilene public schools.
But, recently numerous stories reveal how often creationism is being taught in publicly-funded schools in Texas, Louisiana, and other southern states (see, for example this article mapping where creationism is taught). In fact, in one recent egregious case, a Buddhist student was taunted and belittled publicly by his teacher and had to transfer to another school because he wasn’t a Christian. Fortunately, that case was successfully dealt with by the ACLU (see a summary here).
When I remember our son’s experience, I still get angry. He got over it. I did not. I am still incensed to think that a public school teacher felt he had the right to use his Bible in class to rail against vegetarianism and science. I am angry that neither he nor the principal saw a problem with using the Bible in the classroom in this manner, even though it was against the law.
And I think that this is one reason why, when students get to college they lose their faith. They’re being taught creationism in church and in school, but when they go to college (even Christian colleges), all of the sudden they are confronted with reality. Their biology teachers don’t teach creationism and, if they’re at most Christian universities, neither do their Bible professors .
But when I go to work, every semester I am faced with students who have been taught that it’s either the Bible or science—you have to choose. And every semester, I take them through the Genesis cosmology and show them what “literal” really means (see my post on“Reading Genesis 1 ‘Literally’”). And every semester I have students who confess to me that they believe their churches lied to them. They feel betrayed by the literal teachings that fall apart under scrutiny. And I do my best to tell them that it doesn’t have to be either/or—that they can believe the Bible and use their minds, too. That science and faith don’t have to be at odds with one another. That it’s okay to accept scientific evidence and believe in God.
Some of them come through this crisis with renewed faith and a healthy understanding of both the Bible and science. Others (fortunately the minority), are crushed. They either lose their faith entirely or retreat into a completely literalist fundamentalism and leave the university for places that teach what they want to believe.
As a teacher myself, I know how much power I wield. I know that I can build up or tear down. My desire is to help my students become better readers of the Bible. My desire is to help them through these crises of faith that inevitably arise. I have no desire to hurt or to destroy.
But then I think of my son’s fifth grade teacher and his views of the Bible. He expressed those views to impressionable youngsters who often idolize their teachers; and he expressed them as inviolable truth. Whether intentionally or not, he hurt my son that day, wielding his Bible as a weapon.
One reason separation of church and state exists is to insure that the deeply personal subject of religion is taught to our children in church (or synagogue or Muslim community center) where it belongs. When public servants violate that sacred trust, they do real harm, as my son and I learned the hard way.
1. This teacher quit a few years later and is no longer teaching.
2. The principal retired a few years later.
3. Many Christian universities do not teach creationism; however, there are some well-known ones that do, including Liberty University and Bob Jones University.