Whatever happened to the days of “reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic”? The days when students and parents could expect that educators would teach the preparatory skills necessary for college and life as a productive citizen without feeling the need to inject their own agendas into the instruction? What makes a teacher think his or her position carries with it a license to indoctrinate the captive audience in a public school classroom on matters of religion and politics? Perhaps the phenomenon itself is not new, but the relative frequency with which such situations are occurring certainly appears to be increasing. And whether the finger should be pointed at the curriculum itself or individual teachers who have decided to take advantage of the opportunity to propagandize young minds, we can—and must—do better.
Just this week we were made aware of some significantly concerning assignments given to English students at a public high school in West Virginia. Specifically, it appears the teacher has been promoting a negative attitude toward Christianity, evidencing a hostility toward religion that runs afoul of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Additionally, a recent quiz given by the same teacher asked students to identify the truth or falsity of certain statements, including statements that constitute matters of religious belief and others that are not only unnecessarily controversial and inappropriate but also matters of pure opinion. In light of constitutional restrictions and requirements regarding public school curricular matters, it is clear that such assignments have no place in the classroom. Even setting aside the constitutional concerns, it is simply difficult to comprehend any component of the English curricular standards that is furthered by such exercises.
Take, for example, the recent assignment to read two articles entitled “Are Religious Children Less Generous Than Atheists?” and “Why Christian Kids Are Less Generous Than Nonreligious.” Students were then asked “True/False” questions based on the articles, including the following: “Atheists are more generous with their money than Christians,” to which the apparent “correct” response was “True,” and “Christians are more accepting of others and more likely to forgive than Atheists or non-religious people,” to which the apparent “correct” response was “False.” Students then discussed in class “Reflection Questions,” which asked them to identify other students in the school who are “most accepting of others” and “least likely to make judgments about the actions of others,” citing specific examples, in order to ultimately determine whether they agreed with the findings in the articles about Christians versus nonreligious persons.
Other “Reflection Questions” included the following: “Why do many non-Christians have a negative opinion of religion” and “Is it the responsibility of Christians to be accepting of others who are different in their beliefs or should Christians only worry about other Christians?”
Notably, although the articles expressly state that the “religious” subjects of the study came from both Christian and Muslim backgrounds, the teacher’s True/False questions focused exclusively on Christianity. The teacher also failed to inform the students of the highly relevant fact, as reported in the media, that of the “religious” subjects of the study, 43% were Muslim, while only 24% were Christian. Such intentional skewing of the information presented can hardly communicate anything other than a message of disfavor toward Christianity.
Following this assignment, the students were given a take-home quiz requiring them to perform research on the Internet to answer a separate series of “True/False” questions. Such statements included the following:
Who wrote the Bible is unquestionably a matter of religious belief. While some may believe the Bible is a product of human writing, others believe it is a divinely inspired book authored by God himself. Moreover, in the Christian theology, Jesus is God, yet many others believe differently. Thus, a requirement that students identify as either true or false the statement that “[t]he bible was written by Jesus and God” is fraught with constitutional problems.
Similarly, the Bible discusses the relationship between a woman and her husband, specifically their roles within marriage. The decision regarding whether, and if so how, these teachings apply in real life is inherently a matter of religious doctrine and belief. Yet a public school teacher has demanded that students identify as either true or false the statements that “a woman should always do what [a man] says because that’s what the bible teaches” and “[t]he bible gives a man the right to punish his wife and abuse her if he wants to.”
Pop quiz for the reader: True or False? A student’s particular religious beliefs constitute appropriate criteria for evaluating his or her merit in the context of a public high school English class. (If you have any doubts here, allow me to recommend that you read a primer on the First Amendment.)
The teacher apparently explained to the students that such reading materials and discussion topics are incorporated into their English class in order to “teach them about the world.” The students were expressly prohibited, however, from using the Bible as a source of support for their answers since, according to the teacher’s apparent view of the world, the Bible is not factual. It is difficult to overemphasize the absurdity of an assignment that: (1) evaluates English students’ research skills based on their positions regarding particular religious beliefs but (2) prohibits use of that very religion’s doctrinal writings as a source to support their responses. In what way can this conceivably be thought to prepare the next generation for success in college and beyond?
In addition to such overtly religious statements of belief, the teacher included (also as allegedly true/false statements) a number of highly controversial statements—including statements of opinion—on topics that are simply inappropriate and in no way necessary to satisfy the curriculum standards applicable to a high school English class, such as:
(This latter statement appears to have been included as a precursor to a separate section of the quiz that offers five situational scenarios involving sexual assault of women and asks students “Which females were ‘asking for it’? Explain the justification for your choices.”)
As a former high school English teacher, I am at a complete loss in attempting to identify any legitimate pedagogical purpose for injecting into the curriculum materials that are so entirely untethered to the teaching of subject matter components such as the English language, literature, or competency in reading, writing, and comprehension. As a constitutional attorney, I find it deeply concerning when the First Amendment is so blatantly ignored and students are subjected to such unabashed religious and political indoctrination by the very individuals who have been entrusted with the venerable task of properly educating our nation’s future generations. The Constitution requires—and our students deserve—better.
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