Was a Teacher Disciplined for Refusing to Apologize for Teaching Science?

Last month a North Carolina federal judge threw out a case brought by an eighth grade teacher who says her constitutional rights were violated when her school tried to force her to write a letter of apology for teaching evolution in science class.

In 2004, in the Johnston County school district, Pamela Hensley was instructing students on evolution when what she described as a “lively discussion” broke out with students over science and religion. Later, parents of one of the students complained to the principal that Hensley was rude to their daughter and accused her of giving the girl a bad grade on an assignment because of her “true Christian” religious views. The parents said that it was their intention to see that Hensley was fired from the district and that science classes in the district accommodate views that don’t contradict the Bible.

In an investigation, the district determined that there was no retaliation by Hensley against the student, although she was reminded that it “is imperative that you do not make religious statements about how the Bible could be interpreted as part of your classroom presentations.”

After the parents met with the school board, Hensley was told she must sign a letter of apology, which she refused, arguing that the presented letter contained factual errors. She was later reassigned to teaching a remedial language arts class. Hensley filed a lawsuit against the district saying that her First and 14th Amendment rights had been violated.

According to Hensley’s complaint, the parents demanded she publicly admit she demonstrated “unconstitutional hostility against the beliefs of the Christian students in the classroom by questioning the literal content of the Bible and by teaching her theological position that the Bible contains errors.”

In granting summary judgment to the school district last month, the court ruled that “her decision not to send the letter requested by her employer, in her capacity as a teacher, is not protected by the First Amendment. Because Hensley was asked to speak in her official capacity as a public employee, her refusal to speak does not give rise to a claim for violation of her First Amendment rights.”

A link to the full decision is here.

The National Center for Science Education has more on the story here.

It’s difficult to tell exactly what took place in the classroom and whether Hensley overstepped her boundaries in a discussion of religion. Nonetheless, this all leads me to wonder, if a student argues in class that the bible is life’s literal blueprint, facts be damned, is it wrong for a teacher, in the course of teaching science, to correct the student’s misinformed worldview? Or, in the interest of not offending the child and parents, must the teacher coddle such ignorance?

Because it’s a simple fact that the realities of science contradict a literal belief in the Bible. And not just on the subject of evolution. Heliocentrism, for instance?

“He has fixed the earth firm, immovable.” (1 Chronicles 16:30)

“Thou hast fixed the earth immovable and firm …” (Psalm 93:1)

“Thou didst fix the earth on its foundation so that it never can be shaken.” (Psalm 104:5)

“…who made the earth and fashioned it, and himself fixed it fast…” (Isaiah 45:18)

“The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5)

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