Freedom for Teachers

It’s always disappointing when advocates of the First Amendment find an excuse to fall short of full freedom. Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center wrote a column last week arguing, “Teachers should have more academic freedom than they presently enjoy. But when religion is involved, teachers should not be free to impose either a religious or an anti-religious viewpoint on students.” Haynes accuses the 9th Circuit of having a double standard on religion because they rejected the claim of a teacher who had put up patriotic banners in the classroom emphasizing references to God, but defended a teacher who called creationism “superstitious nonsense.” I happen to disagree with the 9th Circuit’s restriction on religious banners, but I think there is a clear distinction between a teacher giving opinions in class and a school deciding that certain banners should not be put up in classrooms. What’s more alarming is Haynes’ belief that teachers today have too much freedom to discuss religion. Why should religion be treated any different from any other controversial or offensive topic? It’s very disturbing to me that Haynes thinks that the First Amendment demands that all teachers must be banned from calling creationism “superstitious nonsense,” primarily because creationism is, in fact, superstitious nonsense, and I cannot bear to think that stating the obvious scientific facts could be forbidden in school. But I also believe in freedom for teachers who disagree with me, who believe in religion and express these views in class.

4 responses

  1. It is always disappointing when defenders of free speech ignore the opening words of the First Amendment prohibiting government establishment of religion. Religion is treated differently because the Founders treated religion differently. However much we may disagree about the meaning and scope of “no establishment,” surely we can agree that public schools must remain neutral toward religion. As the Supreme Court has often stated, public schools may teach about religion as part of a good education. For the past two decades, I have worked to improve study about religions in public schools — and help teachers understand the difference between teaching about religion and promoting (or denigrating) religion. In the case discussed in my column, the teacher could have told the students that creationism is not considered science by the vast majority of scientists. The teacher was free to expose students to the controversy surrounding creationism — helping them to understand the context for the long-running culture war over the teaching of evolution. What the teacher should not do under the Establishment clause is either promote or denigrate religion. The teacher is a government employee — and the government has no business taking sides in religion, especially in a setting with impressionable young people who are a captive audience. Mr. Wilson apparently rejects any Establishment clause limits on teacher speech about religion. In his reading of the First Amendment, separation of church and state does not apply to public school teachers who “believe in religion and express these views in class.” Fortunately, the Supreme Court has protected liberty of conscience by prohibiting public school teachers from inculcating religion. And the logic of the Court’s decisions (requiring neutrality) would suggest that they not not denigrate religion either. Following James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, I believe that “full freedom” is not possible without strong protection from government entanglement with religion. This is not a “free speech” issue. The Establishment clause is a limitation on government necessary to ensure full liberty of conscience.

    • I thank Mr. Haynes for his detailed reply. It is precisely because I believe in the separation of church and state that I oppose Haynes’ view that the government should intervene to ban teachers from criticizing religious doctrines. The fact that an unscientific doctrine has some religious connection does not mean it should be immune from critique, because virtually any idea can claim to have a religious link. Since astrology is a religion, does that mean that any science teacher who dismisses astrology in an astronomy class is violating the First Amendment? Suppose that a white supremacist church believes that the Holocaust is a myth (as some do); does that mean that any history teacher who denounces Holocaust denial as false and bigoted is violating the separation ban?

      Haynes argues, “the teacher could have told the students that creationism is not considered science by the vast majority of scientists. The teacher was free to expose students to the controversy surrounding creationism.” The same applies to the Holocaust: a history teacher could say that Holocaust denial is not considered true by the vast majority of historians, or expose students to the “controversy” about the Holocaust. But I also believe that a fair-minded teacher should be able to criticize the anti-Semitic religious bigotry of Holocaust deniers without being punished for violating the Constitutional rights of students. And the same should apply to creationism, or astrology, or any other false view that has a religious claim behind it.

      Haynes claims that, “The teacher is a government employee — and the government has no business taking sides in religion, especially in a setting with impressionable young people who are a captive audience.” Why would this same logic not apply to college professors? Should faculty be banned from criticizing creationism at public colleges, because to do so involves taking sides in religion? The principle offered by Haynes would seem to demand this: government employees cannot take sides in religion, and certainly college students are impressionable, young, and captive. It would mean a total ban on academic freedom involving religious topics.

      I believe that the separation of church and state refers to institutional actions, not individual teachers expressing their beliefs. Yes, in certain extremes, a teacher’s words can violate the rights of students or constitute institutional authority. But a teacher should not be banned from criticizing a unscientific belief simply because it is religious.

  2. I appreciate John Wilson’s thoughtful response. I would assume that he would think it fine for another teacher to tell the class that the creation account in the Bible is divinely-inspired and therefore true — no matter what the science community tells you. I disagree (and so does the Supreme Court). Teachers may certainly say that “many Christians believe that the creation account is divinely-inspired and therefore true.” The teacher mentioned in my column made a variety of statements mocking (in my view) religion. I am concered about the pattern of hostility mroe than one isolated statement. The teacher is, indeed, a government employee. All ideas should be open for critique in the high school classroom. But an astronomy teacher can surely explain why astronomers reject astrology as science without calling it “superstitious nonsense.” Religious ideas/convictions about human origins or fate etc. may not be scientific (although there are some scientists who argue otherwise), but that doesn’t make them “superstitious nonsense.”

    The Holocaust denial example doesn’t fit here. We have as a society made decisions about racism, anti-Semitism and othr forms of hate and prejudice — and public schools are fully empowered to take sides on those topics. The state may endorse all kinds of ideas — including those that may contradict some religious views. I acknowledge that it is sometimes difficult to draw a bright line… But I would argue that dismissing as “superstitious nonsense” a religious conviction held by millions of Americans falls way over on the side on impermissible denigration of religion. As difficult as it may be to draw an Establishment clause line on teacher speech denigrating religion (a difficulty that the 9th Circuit panel struggled to resolve), some lines must be drawn if religious freedom is to be protected under the First Amendment. John Wilson would draw no line — subjecting K-12 students to the pro- or anti-religious views of teachers. That would be bad for religious freedom — and for public education.

    The Court has rightly made a distinction between how the Establishment clause is applied K-12 and how it is applied in higher education. School-sponsored prayers at graduation, for example, are unconstitutional on the high school level — but constitutional at a public university. Ironically, teachers at some public universities have gotten into trouble for teaching creatiionism — but other teachers don’t get into trouble for attacking religion. I would argue that academic freedom on the university level should apply fairly to both.

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