It’s Not “Inappropriate” for Public School Teacher to Tell Class that Obama Isn’t Christian

Last week a story broke about a middle-school teacher in Dublin, Georgia, sharing an “inappropriate opinion” in the classroom. Nancy Perry allegedly told her students that President Obama is not a Christian and that if their parents voted for him, they were not Christians either. She also challenged students to “prove” they were really Christians.

When alarmed parents set up a parent-teacher conference, Perry was accompanied by her husband, Reverend Bill Perry, a former conservative talk show host and current member of the Board of Education. Parents reported that the Perrys “doubled down” at the meeting by presenting pages from a website defending their political and religious views. The Georgia NAACP has suggested that Bill Perry’s presence at the meeting was an intimidation tactic and that exerting influence in this fashion violates the standards enforced by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools—the agency that accredits the school district.

This incident, along with the justifiable outrage it sparked and the attempts at damage control by superintendent Dr. Chuck Ledbetter, all point a to widespread ignorance of the Constitutional issues surrounding religion in public schools. Both the media and Ledbetter have framed Nancy Perry’s actions as an issue of “sensitivity” rather than an entanglement of government and religion.

Because the underlying principle has been misidentified, the response appears to reinforce an unfortunate myth that secondary schools cannot discuss important controversial topics and that schools must be “religion free zones.”

Superintendent Ledbetter announced that he’s considering more diversity and sensitivity training for teachers. He also sent a certified letter to the parents explaining that the incident will not happen again and that Nancy Perry is retiring. A local NBC affiliate reported, “The superintendent believes it goes back to a basic lesson: don’t talk politics or religion.” This is the wrong lesson to take to take from this incident.

When I taught in a Georgia public school, I encountered a pervasive belief that religion is “not allowed” in public schools because it “might make some people uncomfortable.” Since Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), the Supreme Court has made it clear that education about religion is welcome in public schools but that proselytizing and indoctrination is not.

The issue is not that everyone must feel “comfortable” with what’s being said about religion. Rather, the establishment clause of the Constitution requires the government to be neutral in its treatment of religion. Nancy Perry is free to hold whatever religious views she wants, but when she shares those views to her classroom in her capacity as a public school teacher her speech becomes government speech.

Her views about what makes a “real” Christian are a confessional position and when she used her position as a government employee to impose those views on others, it undermined the establishment clause. That’s the real issue. The fact that she also offended students and parents is important, but secondary.

The response to this incident should not be to censor any discussion of religion or politics in the classroom. How can you teach Civics without discussing politics, or World Religion without discussing religion? As I’ve argued elsewhere, religious literacy matters. Learning about different religious traditions prepares our students to participate in a democratic and religiously plural society, makes them better equipped to compete in a global marketplace, and allows them to understand art and literature.

The biggest obstacles to improving our religious literacy are the failure by teachers and administrators to understand the establishment clause and the persistent myth that schools cannot make people “uncomfortable.” Learning to think critically and to cultivate moral agency usually entails some discomfort, but this doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.

Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist—and a former high school teacher himself—commented that sensitivity training would simply punish everyone for Perry’s mistake and waste the time of the responsible teachers. (I once sat through a “training” session on why teachers are not allowed to duct-tape students to chairs—no joke!)

On the other hand, training on the first amendment would be a good use of time. Most teachers and administrators are well intentioned but don’t understand the principles or jurisprudence surrounding religion in public schools. With proper training, teachers can be made aware of the difference between providing accurate information about religious worldviews and presenting religious worldviews in ways that amount to a government endorsement.

Most importantly, training on the first amendment can dispel the idea that controversies over religion in schools are about political correctness and sensitivity rather than upholding the principles of the Constitution.

  • Religion and politics are fine to discuss in public schools, until the teacher intergects his/her personal opinion. I think this would be common sense even too the fools that seemed to act otherwise.

  • I believe strongly in the separation of church and state, but the teaching of religion in schools as a subject for philosophical understanding is fine. But this teacher not only crossed the line, she flat out lied to the students and then used her husband to intimidate the parents. She should not be allowed to retire, she should be fired, period. This woman has an obligation as a teacher to teach the truth, not fabrications from FOX News or the Religious Right. Her actions create confusion and fear in people, and is part of why the next generation are finding themselves feeling so hopeless that suicide seems the only answer – if they cannot be good “Christians” then what else matters. This kind of use of religious teaching is part of what is driving this nation to a kind of mental depression that is harming each successive generation exponentially. It is what the Religious Right and the Armageddon Gospel politicians and leaders are counting on to push their destructive agenda on the world. This woman is just one of many, but the fact that she is being allowed to retire with a pension is just plain wrong.

  • Judith Maxfield

    I want kids over the age of 14 to be able to learn about world religions, critical thinking, and polite listening skills. They are at the age of interest in the wider world. What does make me nervous is “which” Christianity will the teacher introduce? Its obvious America has birthed many forms of the religion. Some of them do dominate the public scene, presenting extremes in Christianity, which speaks well for why our culture is so violent.

  • Duck

    This is exactly where Christians tend to confuse Church and State. As a teacher in a ‘public’ school, Nancy Perry was clearly out of line. If she would like to make these kinds of remarks in the classroom then she will need to look for a teaching position at a private school sector.

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  • starmom

    A good teacher teaches it as history – this civilization gave rise to this religion, this religion grew out of idfferences over details, etc. I was a clasroom aide in an 8th grade history room when the chism in the first Catholic Church came up. I was the only person in the room to identify the commandment against worshiping idols, which contributed to the rise of the Orthodox Church. Later, the teacher was delighted to tell me that it was the first time an atheist had quoted the bible to him. I had sat at his desk and googled the Annotated Bible!

  • Judith Maxfield

    Interesting antidote, but what is your point in regard to my posting? Details? What is that about? Makes no sense. I will check on Orthodox Church because your statement seem not right to me.

  • starmom

    Because it was not supposed to be a reply to you – sorry! Someone asked “how would it be taught in school?” That comments seems to have disappeared.

    The first schism in the Christian church resulted in the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox church. One of the issues at stake was the worship of idols, which the EO opposed.

  • Judith Maxfield

    I would like to comment anyway. Sounds like you are interested in history. I am and read a lot. You mentioned this civilization, but which civilization do you refer to? The term is very broad. It fascinated me that the geography we call Palestine / Israel was eventually occcupied by invading Middle Eastern powers and Egypt, then the Greeks and then the Romans. Judaism was heavily influenced by the Hellenistic occupation and lastly by the Romans, the worst oppressor in Jesus’s time. Christianity began to move away from its Jewish roots as it moved into the European culture along with ideas from the Greek Plato and Latinized beliefs. Its important to me because Jesus and his Jewish understanding of God and divinity was eventually lost to the Gentiles and the rest of the story is a horrible one. There is a quote from a writer whose name escapes me, that America is Jesus obsessed and Christ forgotten. That works for me.

  • lorasinger

    “Perry allegedly told her students that President Obama is not a Christian and that if their parents voted for him, they were not Christians either. She also challenged students to “prove” they were really Christians”
    ………..
    Perry cannot make that judgement since the man claims to be Christian and attends a Christian church. There is no reason to believe that he is any less Christian than she is.
    .
    She should be made aware of: ” “The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States,shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” U.S. Constitution Article VI –
    ………………
    She is also in no position to judge the religion of the parents either and whether or who they voted for.
    …………
    She is making her classroom into a Sunday school class. The kids have absolutely no need to prove anything to her. It’s none of her business.

  • lorasinger

    If any Universal Unitarianism would be the best choice since it doesn’t consider itself as having the only “truth” and one can actually believe whatever they want and be welcome. Wouldn’t that frost the pickles of the fundies?

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  • Judith Maxfield

    I guess. However, somewhere here on RD, I mentioned in the Easter sermon from my Episcopal Bishop, that other belief systems can see the benefit of a holy and spiritual practice, but she had chosen Christianity. Choice is the operative word here. So, the Unitarians are not the only ones. Personally, I found their take on the Trinity not very enriching or insightful. Rather bland to me. But that’s their choice, isn’t it. I’ve worked with them in community affordable housing issues in an organization of combined groups, churches and synagogue. They’re all great, but all in what you call progressive, which makes it easier and enjoyable.

  • lorasinger

    The fundamentalists see things only one way and when in the company of only other fundamentalists are pretty insulting to outsiders, Episcopalians included along with United, Methodists, and just about everyone else. I’ve heard my relatives discussing all those people who are scheduled for Hell in their estimation – what a bunch of haters! I’m thinking in terms of leeway and toleration to the different flavors of the religion where you can delve into the variations without condemnation.

  • Judith Maxfield

    Oh yes, tell me! At least I’m comforted in Hell knowing they’re not with me there!
    I’ve had a few safe talks with a few I know, one who sincerely had a conversion experience. She knew i was a Christian and was surprised in talking to me they we al don’t believe the “exact”same thing. I was careful not to start an argument because she was a friend. What does surprise me is that many seem not to know there is a tradition of the faith that began well before the Reformation

  • elena nash

    Yea, she should be punished, especially at her age!
    Taking away her pension, something for she’s spent a lifetime to acquire, otta teach her a lesson! Right Devon?

  • lorasinger

    It’s kept my family divided since childhood, first Catholic versus Mennonite, then fundamentalist versus mainstream and now again mainstream versus even a more aggressive Religious Right, guns and end days, snake handling and bomb them kind of literalist guy. Scary stuff. With him, we talk about the weather. But the problem is that he’s working on his dad so we end up in arguments because anyone who isn’t a fundamentalist is an atheist automatically.
    .
    There is so much in history they don’t know that would blow them right out of the water and they don’t want to know – so be it. If it gives them comfort and they are better for it, they’re probably mainstream anyway.
    .
    And you’re absolutely right about knowing about Jesus taken in Jewish context as compared to the gentilized Jesus of Paul.
    .

  • lorasinger

    Judith, these are some books I think you’ll find invaluable for historical information:

    Fabrication of Faith – R. Hagenston (Jewish history)

    Christ’s Ventriloquists – E. Zuesse (forensic analysis of Paul’s writings)

    Beyond Belief; 2000 years of bad faith – James McDonald (Deals with forgeries and early manipulation of biblical writings).

    If you like those, I have more.

  • Judith Maxfield

    Thank you for sharing this. We never may know what someone else’s struggles have been. It opens up for compassion, doesn’t it? I’m a senior now and shudder at the silly things I did and said, just silly and forgiven. It took me fifty yrs to let go of childish beliefs. May I recommend Fr. Richard Rohr’s “Falling Upward”? Part of it talks about Carl Jung’s ideas around the False self (the societal rules of life we do need), and the True self we finally need to discover for wisdom and peace of mind. The book is not too long and easy to read, funny in parts and very compassionate for all our follies done and gone. It can work for secular people as well.
    One thing on Jesus and Paul: If I understand your phrasing of the gentilized Paul, I would offer another view of some midstream scholarship in which I agree. The Jewish Paul’s theology of Jesus still is in the context of Judaism and is one way of getting to know Jesus as such. Its really the early church fathers in the gentile world who began to drift into what I think you mean. Paul could explain to Gentiles as he said “I’ve become all things to all people”. What bothers me is that the faith morphed into Greek and Latin European views as time went on. A quote I like from an American author whose name I can’t find online says Americans are “Jesus obsessed and Christ forgetting”. I think its true with the majority being Evangelical or further right wing.

  • lorasinger

    I’m going to have to make a point of reading more of Jung. The last time I read anything there was about 35 years ago and I don’t remember much of it. Fascinating thinker!
    .
    This is where the book “Christ’s ventriloquists” would give you many of the answers you would need. Most of the things you’ve mentioned are covered in that book. Paul didn’t come along until 20 years after Jesus death and didn’t study under the apostles. After his break with the apostles at Antioch, he set to preaching outside of Israel to the gentiles. His teachings became the basis of the Christianity of today. That too is covered in the book.
    .
    I get my books from Amazon to Kindle on my PC – a lot cheaper – and if there is an especially good one, then I order a hard copy and use my Kindle version for reference while on computer.
    ,
    The fundamentalists are certainly bible worshippers and so much of their thinking is grounded in the old testament, yet they revere Paul who told them expressly in Galations that Christians were no longer under the old covenant/Moses Law/Torah/ the first five books of the old testament. They think more about punishment/who is wrong/ how to convert them rather than caring for the needy. (That is covered in another book I’m reading now which is called “The Dark Side of Christian History” about the development of the church over the years and why certain tenets of the church developed along with a description of the dozens of sects that appeared in the first 500 years of its existence.

  • Judith Maxfield

    A bit about myself in response. I love meeting friendly responders in RD with interesting, divergent and thoughtful views –

    I too love books but no longer can afford any amount of money for them. Whats really weird is that my local library carries nothing really worth reading in theology. However, When funds were good, I studied in a four year a Theological Education by Extension from a program of the Episcopal Church called EFM, Eduction For Ministry from the Divinity School at the U of the South, (not by any means conservative). I loved it and went on to be trained to mentor classes where I live in CA. They have a good website if you are curious. It is not your typical bible study where only correct answers are accepted. The best of it to me was what is called Theological Reflection. The program is designed for people to actually experience small group faith as a micro family of faith. Whats great about its honesty is that the learning also includes up to date readings and discussion about philosophy, history, and culture. I loved the whole thing because I have always loved history, anthropology and the arts. I am a contemporary painter and very much into metaphor., so that helps with reflection. After a terrible betrayal, divorce and darkness, my first adult Church experience was in Westminster Abbey for a Sunday service. The beauty of the liturgy and gentle hospitality drew me in. I was home. The via media of the Anglican style is very appealing. You are supposed to bring both your heart and brains with you on the journey.

    BTW: That Paul was told to go to….. (name forgotten for now) and stay there for some time, maybe for years has been interpreted by Fr. Richard Rohr, (ordained Catholic and very wonderful,) mention in my previous reply, when you make a choice to follow Jesus, its good to spend time being in a quiet attitude, wait and listen for the Holy Spirit; something like that. Paul’s ministry is believed to be more like forty years due to the tracing the geography and cultural clues in his writings. When I mentor my groups, the women tend to hate Paul! They forget that EFM teaches one to identify the source of your cultural lens before taking a position. Very funny to me, knowing this would happen every time. Personally, I love Paul and his passion to do what he did. I’m not sure on your take on the Covenant and will re-read Paul.

  • lorasinger

    You clearly have had a hard time of things and have now reached a level of acceptance and goodness that religion is truly supposed to bring about. I honestly don’t think that delving into history is going to be beneficial for you because it will bring disillusionment. Belief is most beneficial when taken as religion Lite.
    .
    As far as Paul goes – He is origin of Christian belief and the new covenant he established is for Christians alone. The old (eternal covenant) of the Jews is distinct and separate and is interwoven with the “old” testament which really has nothing to do with Christians and nothing in it for them.
    .
    Contrary to what has been taught, it has no prophecies for Jesus and the concept of the Christian story does not come from Judaism.
    .
    You are lucky, Judith. I think you are on the right path.

  • Judith Maxfield

    Actually, history is very important, especially for the church as tradition. From Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossen, in their 6 day seminaris been fortunate to attend

  • lorasinger

    Well then what you are attending is a preachers’ convention. There is a quote I will give you that pretty much sums it up:

    “Perhaps if professors of earliest Christian history at accredited colleges and universities were barred from ever serving in a church’s pay, and preachers in church-run institutions were barred from ever teaching earliest Christian history outside of a church-financed setting, there would be a difference between preachers and teachers, but that’s not the case now: These two fields
    are essentially one, and calling its practitioners “historians” is to insult the historical profession. Any historian who accepts such people as being historians has a very low opinion of his field, and it as a corruption. . McDonald, James (2009-11-01). Beyond Belief”
    Most Christians have a fuzzy knowledge of a wonderful god man born of a virgin who died for the sins of mankind and his resurrection convinced so many that the belief of love spread like wildfire throughout the world. They are not prepared for the unvarnished truth that it actually spread by murder, bloodshed, mistranslation and forgery and that more Christians died at the hands of their fellow Christians than for any other reason.
    .
    Stay with the beliefs that you already have that are benign and gentle. If you are actually given the truth, you risk losing the belief altogether.

  • Judith Maxfield

    You seem to be wanting to teach me from an authority I don’t know and is full of a mixed salad set of positions that don’t flow together very well. So I’m not a profession teacher and thus should not comment on history? You’ve jumped to conclusions. To separate the two fields is to not ask the question Why? Staying with only beliefs will bring you the horror you mentioned above. As an educated woman, I refuse to disconnect the connections that are really there. I’m not so stupid as to not be able to discriminate between the traditions and tools of these fields. I’m disappointed you assume way too much – at least here in text, which is actually part of the problem. This is not face to face conversation, and is absent of body language. Such is the way of our world these days..
    In a more direct experiences, i have faced the horror by studying the history – extensively – of Europe and Germany that allowed WWII and the Holocaust. I have been to the concentration camps, those not redone as museums, sites in Berlin as well. I do get it. I did not throw out my religion but gained deeply in my faith. To understand the historical context of a Jewish Jesus in a Jewish homeland occupied and oppressed finally by the Romans, and finally turned into a blue-eyed European gentile is to finally in the end allow the Holocaust. I’ve seem some of the death camps and brought my teen sons as well. This was not a tourist visit but an educated learning experience, the context of which was taught and received.
    I’m trying to be kind here, but I am a bit upset to what seems condescending.

  • lorasinger

    I’m sorry if I’ve appeared to be condescending because that wasn’t my intention. There was a time when I had pretty much the same faith as you did and it was the same kind of innocent belief that truly made me a kind of Miss Purity and sunshine. Studying the history of the religion for the past 10-20 years has left me with no belief at all – just an interest and the final conclusion that the “emperor has no clothes” – that the entire story is a fairy tale for grown ups. I have no longing to return to the previous state – just anger that I had been fooled for 55 years.
    .
    You have a good thing going with your beliefs and your faith as it is but it is true – there is nothing like reading of the bible and studying its background that will catapult you into at least agnosticism and most likely into atheism altogether.

    Jesus the man, if he lived, had nothing to do with Paul’s Christianity. He lived and died a Jew, was executed and remains dead.
    .
    Christian history begins with Paul’s vision, his god man placed into a scenario which is absent in Judaism. It is from there that the story grew and became the religion that you know today.

    Read: Ellerbe, Helen (2013-04-08). The Dark Side of Christian History = Your library might be able to order it in for you but if you want an unvarnished true representation of the religions growth – complete with supporting historical writings – then it’s the book to read.

  • lorasinger

    You wrote: “So I’m not a profession teacher and thus should not comment on history? You’ve jumped to conclusions. To separate the two fields is to not ask the question Why”
    .
    From the preacher/”historians”, you will receive “adjusted” history bundled into a believable but not entirely true representation. From the straight historians, you will get the warts and all and it might lead you away from your faith altogether. It depends if you are willing to take that risk and lose the comfort that you are obviously receiving from your present belief.

  • Judith Maxfield

    I thank you for your response as it illuminate more of you and your life story. You are on a diffident path and its fine if you have peace. My church asked me to question everything about God and Christ. Its Ok to struggle with it. God gave us brains and a heart.

    It’s very startling to me of your choice of words to describe how I might be known to you. You don’t know my life’s story. i am not of an innocent believer, nor am a miss purity. My faith is beyond mere belief (as i’ve written elsewhere on RD). You choose to go where you did and so have I. However, why the anger after 55 years? Can’t it be time to let that go? Please, I must say it sounds like you have allowed it to define the rest of your life. Is that what you want? This is only part of your story. That the question my therapist asked me in the depths of despair. I answered i’d die if I kept the darkness around me when he left. I was down to my ribs showing, not so pretty. It was then and there I decided to live. One good thing out of this is now I know why the Gospel talks so much about suffering. Its about (to me) letting go of the childish stuff and not being angry that God was not the God you wanted Him/Her to be.

    I can’t do a whole bio of my life here, but if I go only to the negative, believe me there are things that happen to me strait from the age 6. To name a few here: Polio at age 6, stuttering badly, very angry father from WWII now known as PTSD (if I have it right), parental disfunction, mother dying after 12 yrs of cancer, me a wallflower in school afraid of the world, knowing someone murdered, adults committing suicide, 25 yrs of marriage ending in his betrayal, finally all my financial well being stolen in fraud. When the guy left for a bimbo – and I do mean bimbo i did think of suicide but not deeply. I have 2 beautiful adult sons and would not do that to them. What I did not say is i also experienced love from teachers my sons, and my mom. I did have a great eduction in school and UCLA. So, I am not as naive and rosy believing as you may think. I tried the church, but one known for its teaching. i never did and still don’t believe life is a bed of roses and i’m not supposed to think for myself.. My church deals directly with real life and suffering head on, no gimmicks, magic or supernatural funny stuff. The Anglican way is directly traced bak to the beginning tradition. To me, if one can’t deal in a healthy way with suffering, you haven’t grown up. I no longer have nightmares over being told i need to go back to school even though I have a university degree. I thank God i am not terrorized by this nightmares anymore. Thanks be to God and Peace be with you.