Religion in the public schools

This weekend, my mother brought a local controversy to my attention. It’s actually been going on for weeks, but since I don’t get the paper, I hadn’t noticed. It turns out that one of my old high school history teachers, Mr. Escamilla, has been suspended with pay while the school investigates just how inappropriate he was in inviting an anti-Islam Christian evangelist to be a speaker in his class.

Like the students and former students interviewed in this article, I wasn’t very surprised. Escamilla made no secret about his evangelical views, and was widely known to truly believe the world was going to end (complete with the Rapture) quite soon. (A quick firsthand Escamilla story: When I was in his AP European history class, his wife had recently had another baby. One of the other students, knowing of his belief in the imminent end of the world, asked why he and his wife had had another kid, if they didn’t think it’d get to grow up. He replied candidly that the most recent baby hadn’t been planned.) Although he didn’t do it in my class, many of my friends who had him for other classes told me about watching the “Left Behind” videos and other evangelical propaganda on days when no actual learning was scheduled. I was never particularly impressed with his classes, in any case, because all we ever did was read the textbook and then teach the chapters to each other in assigned turn. He very rarely actually seemed to teach us anything. I think I saw him being more teacherly in driver’s ed than in my history class.

So anyway, I wasn’t surprised to hear he’d finally done something so flagrant it had gotten him suspended, and I’m very happy that the students who were scared and offended by the speaker actually took the issue to the administration. Beyond that, the whole thing got me thinking about the place of religion in public schools in the US.

When I was at Enloe (1994-1998), the student body was quite diverse, and it should have been quite clear to the teachers that not nearly all of the students in their classes were of a Christian background. And yet, time and again, teachers would assume a background of Biblical knowledge, especially in English classes, where they would throw questions at us about allusions we obviously should have picked up on right away. Like other non-Christian students in the class, I’d just hope some Methodist or Baptist would answer the question, or that the allusion came from some really famous bit that I must have picked up by exposure. There wasn’t any pushing of Christianity, there was just widespread assumption of it, all evidence, such as the names on the roll, to the contrary. We all just learned to fake it, and life went on.

But should we have ignored it? Can we afford to anymore? What should the role of religion be in the public schools? What should be the teacher’s role in discussing religion? Where should the school administration set the boundaries for what teachers should, and should not, be allowed to do?

In addressing the first, and, in my opinion, least controversial of those questions, I clearly don’t think teachers can continue to assume a Christian background for all their students. In cases where an understanding of Christianity and the Bible as a reference have impact on the students’ learning of the class material, teachers should be more aware that they need to teach that underlying Christian material just as much as they need to overtly teach background and references from other sources, such as Greek mythology or the scriptures of any other, non-Christian, more “exotic” religion, which, in my experience, they were always quite willing to do without being asked. Our world is now one of pluralities, and I’m all for Christianity being recognized as one of many options, not the automatic default. So I hope the students of today and tomorrow are more inclined to point out to their teachers that they don’t know what they’re driving at, and would they be so kind as to explain?

I do think that religion has a place in the schools. Religion is an important part of culture, all over the world, and in any class that is trying to understand a culture, be it through history, literature, and yes, in some cases, even science, religion may well become a necessary and important part of the lesson. But I also think it is something that can be, and should be, impartially taught. (Then again, I grew up UU, and we spent a lot of Sunday school doing impartial world religion comparison, so I’m sure I’m being influenced by my own religious background. How ironic.)

Teachers would obviously have an important role in this kind of teaching. Teachers have the power to set the tone in their classrooms, and this power can be abused. In having what is potentially a heated debate about religious beliefs, an impartial moderator is essential to keeping everything academic, interesting, and enlightening without being persecutory. But if the teacher expresses opinions that clearly put them in one and only one camp of opinion, students can be put in very untenable positions. Is it any wonder that students of other religious backgrounds in Mr. Escamilla’s class failed to speak up much before this? He wouldn’t have cared. And until he did something so egregious, it’s likely the administration wouldn’t have much either. His classroom was not one that had an atmosphere open to pluralistic debate, and students can sense that very quickly. All we want to do is survive school, for the most part.

My parents know someone in the higher levels of the county school administration, and he said that, in looking at Escamilla’s school-related website, they’re having a hard time figuring out where to draw the line on the allowable level of free speech. My initial reaction is that it shouldn’t be that hard. I don’t feel like I have complete freedom of speech on my job-related website, so why should it be different for a teacher working for a school? I have no issue if he wants to spew ill-founded notions on his completely personal website, but if it’s one that is on a school server, set up for him as a teacher, then I don’t think it is so inconceivable for there to be limits to what is acceptable. Certainly, I do not think it is appropriate for a teacher to express personal religious beliefs that denigrate the beliefs of others on such a site, nor really to say anything that lessens other people. Teachers are community leaders, and while we certainly no longer live in the days when teachers were housed with the families of their students and kept under a magnifying glass by the whole town, they still have some responsibility to set a good example for respectful behavior in front of their students. This is a time when the adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” may well be the one to follow.


12 Responses to Religion in the public schools

  1. Mark says:

    I’m sure it will come as no surprise to those of you who know me, but I tend to take a much less forgiving point of view on this subject. Students in a classroom are, by law, a captive audience, and I always get offended when people take advantage of a captive audience to push their own beliefs, especially on the subject of religion. There is no place for this sort of behavior in any society, but in our society, it is a matter of the highest and most firmly established law.

    In my perfect world, teachers would not be allowed to discuss their own, personal religious beliefs in the classroom unless a student asked them a direct question that obviously pertained to the lesson at hand. Even outside of the classroom, I would prefer teachers to be prohibited from discussing their beliefs with students unless asked a specific, direct question.

    Now, clearly, I recognize that there are some subjects that require a class to discuss and examine religion. The study of History and, more broadly, what was called when I was in High School just “Social Studies”, are prime examples. Under these circumstances, it is entirely proper for the class as a whole, including the teacher, to have an open discussion of religion. I agree with you, Dana, that teachers have an important role as facilitators and moderators in these types of discussions. However, I cannot find words strong enough to express my insistence that they do so without favoring any set of beliefs, and under no circumstances should they be allowed to belittle the faith (or lack thereof) of any student willing to be an active participant in that conversation.

    I’m glad to hear that students in this case had the courage to take their misgivings to the administration. I hope that they also took them up with the teacher directly. I would like to think that I would have done the same. Now, I certainly would, but in High School? I’m not so sure. That’s a difficult time for most people, still struggling to find their place in the world, and to confront an authority figure under those circumstances… I worry that it’s more than we can expect from someone young enough that we still require their parent to sign permission slips for them to leave the building during the day.

    In this context, all students are classified as disadvantaged minorities, and the laws are structured to protect them from the deprivations of those who would take advantage of their authority over them, or enable others to do so in their place. I hope they sack him.

  2. Dana says:

    As usual, Mark, you manage to cut more directly to the heart of the matter. I agree with everything you said, especially the part about students being a captive audience. I certainly tried to remember that when I was teaching, and I have a hard time imagining why some teachers would lose sight of that. Teachers are certainly entitled to opinions, but opinions about the personal beliefs of others, particularly their students, don’t really have a place in the classroom. In any case, I am of the opinion that most of teaching is leading students to learn how to think for themselves, and to form and defend opinions of their own, regardless of how well those eventual opinions line up with my own. Then again, I’m not sure how much that opinion of the purpose of teaching matters in our public schools right now. Even so, in a world where teachers teach to the test, it would seem there’s even less room for personal opinions from the teacher.

  3. Mark says:

    I certainly hope I didn’t sound like I thought you disagreed with me. I think what I found myself most compelled to respond to was not the point of view you express in your post (because it seems to me that we tend to agree), but rather what felt to me like a very forgiving attitude among current and former students in the article you linked.

    Favor shown to a particular point of view, let alone openly denouncing a student’s faith, strikes me as the “best” way to stifle efforts to encourage students to think for themselves. Reprimanding a student for not “acting like a Christian woman” is beyond unacceptable. It’s grounds for an immediate firing. For that student to then never say anything about it at school because she “didn’t think [she]’d be heard” is even worse.

  4. Mary says:

    I hope I have never denigrated another student’s religion, but I have revealed the belief system in which I participate in the interest of self-disclosure–just as I have shared where my husband works when facilitating a discussion while subbing in a high school economics class. The idea is that students understand what I say might have an inherent bias based on what I believe or who feeds me. I make it clear that I am sharing that information for that purpose. I’m not inclined to wear, say, jewelry with religious symbols, but if I chose to, I think even as a teacher, I have that First Amendment right…just as a Muslim teacher has the right to wear her hijab if she so chooses. What this particular teacher did is indefensible. Asking a teacher to completely submerge their spiritual identity is also unacceptable. When I was in high school, I had a couple of teachers share their beliefs in this way; sometimes they even shared their beliefs in order to enhance our lessons. For example, when we read The Chosen, one of the teachers invited her husband and mother-in-law to talk to us about Judaism, and they also arranged a field trip to a service at a synagogue for us. I loved the book even before that, but having that opportunity made the book even more meaningful.

  5. Dana says:

    Hmmm, but I think the key, Mary, is that you did what you did with *respect* for the students. You told the students so that they would be aware of your viewpoint as a possible bias from the outset, not as a way to indicate that all opinions disagreeing with your own were wrong. I think there’s a difference between sharing your opinion/experiences as the teacher in order to stimulate discussion, in which you are inviting others to share their own experiences so as to compare and contrast, and what Mr. Escamilla (and other, hypothetically evangelistic teachers) was doing, which was setting his opinion up to be the only acceptable one.

    I have no objection to teachers having opinions, or using their own religious background and experiences as a teaching tool. Religions often comes into play in lessons that have anything at all to do with culture.

    I think the problem, here, is that to me, and probably many other teachers, the idea of being respectful is ingrained. While I do think that some teachers need to be less Christo-centric in their assumptions of background knowledge, I don’t think they’re doing it out of disrespect, just lack of awareness. And that’s fine. But the whole Escamilla situation brings into question just how far religious teachers should go. Can we truly not trust evangelical teachers (of any religion) to be respectful of their students? If this is the case, do there need to be regulations? How does one regulate respect without infringing on the rights of expression of others? I don’t know that there is a perfect solution.

    (Maybe the real difference between the speaker Escamilla had and the ones you had in your class is that his speaker was talking about things that *all* people should believe and do, whereas your speakers were talking about their own lives, with no reference to edicts of behavior for others. There must be a definable line in there somewhere.)

  6. poetloverrebelspy says:

    I went to a school where religion was taught (because it was private) and there was a two semester requirement. My courses were called “History of Western Thought” and “Religions of North America.” The latter had a large focus on Native American traditions. Both courses touched upon Judaism and Christianity and were taught by ordained individuals. Neither course pushed one towards any specific way of thinking, though looking back I can’t remember any focus on Islam. But this was long before Islam seemed anywhere near as salient as it does today. I have probably just forgotten its inclusion (as I’ve forgotten most of what I learned in high school . . . advanced math, who needs it?).

    That said, I think I would have rather seen religion come up in English or History classes as necessary (as it did, but probably not in the depth that it should have), rather than taking two semesters of express religion. However, I really wish I had had the chance to study the Old and New Testaments in college, because I think those texts are mandatory cultural literacy. Those courses are not anything I would have felt comfortable taking in high school, even with the fairly balanced religion program that was offered there. Perhaps because it is generally religious people who are attracted to teaching religion, and therefore it seems there will always be inherent bias in a way there isn’t when teaching Greek mythology?

    For me, it is more than anything a slippery slope dilemma. Or, perhaps like smoking, it is easier never to start than to quit once you’ve started. Either way, the danger lies in unscrupulous teachers and, as Mark said, the captive audience. There are also plenty of unscrupulous parents and principals who would take our desire for an expanded base of cultural knowledge and subvert it with prayer in schools and Bible readings and what have you. People are more than welcome to do that in their private homes, schools and meetings; evangelizing in a public school as your former teacher did is simply unacceptable.

    As for Mary’s comment, there was a big debate in Europe a couple years ago about Muslim teachers wearing headscarves at public schools. France completely outlawed it, and the German states, following an undecided ruling of the constitutional court, were left to decide for themselves whether or not teachers could wear “religious symbols.” This seemed to me a clear religious freedom issue while here it was an issue of equality, as the headscarf is seen as a form of female subjugation. And whereas one can “hide” one’s cross under one’s shirt, a headscarf is visible to all. These decisions forced many women to choose between their beliefs and their career. I find it interesting that we Americans, as our completely different approach in this example shows, are such staunch supporters of religious freedom above most other concerns.

  7. jennie says:

    poetloverebelspy– actually France outlawed *anyone* from wearing a religious symbol in a public school. The controversy was less over whether teachers could wear a headscarf and more over whether or not students could.

    But really, I wanted to respond to Dana. My teachers didn’t explicitly assume an entirely Christian audience, but the knew the majority was, so that still didn’t help me. When looking at a statue of Mary Magdelene in art history, my teacher asked, “Does everyone know who Mary Magdelene was?” Everytime something like that came up, my teachers would ask, but I also wasn’t about to raise my hand and ask. Not because my teachers would ridicule me, but I knew I was the only kid in the class who had no idea. I didn’t want to hold the class up because of me. I hated it when teachers had to hold up the entire class for one person, and I didn’t want to be that person, especially when was perfectly capable of looking up Miss Mary when I got home.

    Of course, when I got home, I asked my dad who she was and his answer was “um, I think she hung out with Jesus. Ask your mom.”

  8. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Okay, well from the German perspective it was about teachers as instruments of the state and whether or not wearing religious symbols 1) was state endorsement of one religion over another and 2) represented subversion of the principle of equality. Seems like the French focused more on the latter, and universally at that, ignoring the issue of teachers as state employees?

  9. Mark says:


    Let me be the dissenting voice, here. I agree that many, perhaps even most, Americans tend to favor religious freedom over most other concerns. I am most emphatically NOT one of those people. I am always willing to favor separation of church and state as being universally more important than freedom of religion. In a question of your right to hold whatever religious beliefs you choose conflicting with someone else’s right to not have your beliefs forced upon them, their right ALWAYS supersedes your own.

    This is, I freely admit, a harsh standpoint, but it is one I’m willing to defend. I never went to a private school, and I certainly never went to a religious school. I spent my entire time, from preschool through 12th grade, in the public schools of a variety of cities. I was never required to attend religious instruction as a part of school, and at a very young age my mother abandoned subjecting me to religious instruction outside of school. In spite of this, for as long as I can remember, I have detected of a strong Christian bias in even the public schools of some of the most liberal districts in my state.

    It was not until I got older and more experienced with the world that I really became aware of this constant background bias, but when I did, I was able to look back and see it, throughout my life. It suddenly made sense to me why certain situations had made me so uncomfortable when I was younger, and why some places and people made me so uncomfortable now that I was older. It made me wary, it made me sad, and it made me angry.

    I was part of that captive audience, and it is important to me that others not be subjected to the same treatment I was. In some ways teachers like Escamilla are better than many others because they are, ironically, worse. What he did was so flagrant that it was undeniable, and I can hope that it will get him fired. It’s almost worse to be subjected to a constant, often unconscious drip than an intentional flood, because it’s much harder to object to. Pointing out unconscious bias to people most often makes them defensive and doesn’t really solve the problem. Pointing out that someone handed me a pamphlet actively encouraging me to discriminate against a large group of people is hard to ignore.

    I would also point out that, in this context, I am willing to agree with some critics of points of view similar to my own and concede that under these circumstances atheism is a religious belief. In many other contexts, I don’t hold this to be true, but to look a student in the eye and say “There is no God” is an assault on their faith, if they have any. However, and this is critical, not talking about God is not the same thing as denying the existence of God. Not talking about it is just that. The subject doesn’t come up. This is an endorsement of nobody’s opinion, just as it is an attack on nobody’s opinion.

  10. Mark says:


    I can understand, and I hope even be respectful of, your preference to full disclosure. Making students aware of a potential in-built bias to what you say is a laudable goal. That having been said, I am still prepared to stand by what I said in my first comment, and in the one immediately before this one.

    I think it is appropriate for teachers to discuss their own beliefs when it is pertinent to the lesson at hand, when a student asks. If the class is discussing religion, and students are talking about their own beliefs, it would be entirely reasonable for you to, respectfully and without judgement, outline your own as part of that conversation. I don’t personally know where your husband works, but I can’t imagine how, if it is pertinent to an Economics lecture, I would object to your sharing that information with a class.

    I don’t know you very well at all, but from the little exposure I’ve had to you, I’m prepared to suggest that the vast majority of people in this world, teachers included, are not as polite and respectful as you. I find the idea of allowing you to present your possible bias to students and allowing them to decide for themselves to be very appealing, but I’m terrified of giving that same freedom to someone with an agenda. I tend to favor the first half of the first clause of the first amendment over the second, and even over the second clause as a whole.

    For reference:
    1.1. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
    1.2. or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
    2.1. or abridging the freedom of speech,
    2.2. or of the press; …

  11. […] Religion in the public schools, on the controversy one of my high school history teachers recently caused when he had an anti-Muslim evangelical speaker visit his class. […]

  12. […] Religion in the local public schools In a strange return to one of the very first posts here at Geek Buffet (now more than a whole year ago!), I heard a startling local news blurb on my way […]

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