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.