Losing my religion

Forced removal of religious symbols violates teacher’s freedom of religion

On January 17, 2013


If a teacher's religious preference isn't being forced on his or her students and doesn't detract from the education process, should it still be hidden? Cheektowaga Central School District says yes.

Joelle Silver, a high school biology and anatomy teacher in the district, was issued a letter to remove posters and sticky notes with religious messages on them, as well as other religious symbols, from her classroom or she would be terminated.

Among the materials Silver was asked to remove was a poster with a verse from I Corinthians, "Be on guard. Stand true to what you believe. Be courageous. Be strong. And everything you do must be done in love" superimposed over images of schoolbooks and an American flag. She had also posted quotes from Ronald Reagan reading "without God, democracy will not and cannot endure" and "if ever we forget that we are One nation Under God, then we will be a Nation gone under." The request came after a single student complained to the school and said he or she felt isolated.

Since the threat, Silver, represented by the American Freedom Law Center, has taken the issue to court and charged district officials with violating her First Amendment rights. The separation of church and state has reached a near-hostile level, and if Silver was not forcing her religion down her students' throats, she has a case.

The organization fighting against Silver is the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the largest organization advocating for non-theists. There's confusion when an organization that forces freedom from religion gets to advocate for the school but not a person fighting for freedom of religion. Rebecca Markert, attorney for FFRF, told The Buffalo News employees of public schools "are prohibited from professing religious beliefs and imposing them on students."

Was Silver ever intentionally pushing her religion, though, or was she displaying it for her own purpose? The teacher allegedly made a religious reference in a class, to which the same student complained, but if the references were not recurring or frequent, there is no reason to be offended by it.

The argument is a teacher has an obligation to be leave her faith at the door the moment she heads to work even if she is neutral in her teaching methods. Silver's attorney, Robert J. Muise, argued the officials "essentially want her to cease being a Christian once she enters school district property."

There is an obvious stigma in the country around Christianity, one associated with intolerance and hate, and we've gotten to the point where the religion (and all religions, for that matter) is completely taboo. We're worried about students being forced to believe in something instead of teaching them to question things and make their own decisions, no matter what is around them. And because of that, our students are offended just looking at a religious symbol.

The argument goes both ways, no matter the symbol or the side. In 2012, Tennessee journalism teacher Richard Yoakley was forced out of his high school after expressing support for a couple of controversial student articles - one being an account of being an atheist in a Christian school that was censored by the school director and the other an article about a gay student. The latter of the two was censored because the school director wanted to protect the school from "disruption," but Yoakley believed it was good for discussion and students should learn to think for themselves. And for that, he was required to leave.

In the quest for tolerance, intolerance is often prevalent. As long as a teacher - specifically Silver - is not forcing her students to inherit her beliefs, then she should be free to hold onto her religion just as the students should be free to discuss it and question it.


Email: editorial@ubspectrum.com

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