By Randall Murphree
American Family Association Journal
Mitchell Gruber enjoyed his first-grade teacher’s lesson about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. At the end of the lesson, she asked the children to tell her what they dream of so she could write it on the board. Mitchell could hardly wait for his turn.
“My dream is that everyone would come to know God,” he said. He was crestfallen at his teacher’s response.
“We can’t talk about God here,” she said. “Pick another dream.” The Tucson, Arizona, public school teacher then launched into a lecture to the wide-eyed first-graders on her views of the separation of church and state.
Unfortunately, too many teachers in America’s 92,000 public schools are, like Mitchell’s teacher, confused about students’ freedom of religious expression and the appropriate place for acknowledging and teaching about Christianity. The result is that many Christian students face discrimination in the classroom, and teachers unnecessarily censor America’s Christian heritage from their lessons.
“This is especially frustrating,” said Eric Buehrer, “because the U.S. Department of Education has clearly outlined students’ religious liberties for the past 13 years.” Buehrer is president of Gateways to Better Education, a national organization dedicated to equipping parents and educators so schools honor students’ freedom of religious expression and teach them about Judeo-Christian history, thought and values.
In 1995, 1998 and 2003, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidelines clarifying students’ religious liberties, but few educators are aware of them and even fewer have ever read them. According to the guidelines, students have the right to pray at school, witness to classmates and include their faith in classroom discussions, school work, and homework.
State standards mandate teaching Christian roots
Often, teachers carefully guard against any reference to Christianity in their lessons, despite state academic standards that allow – and in many instances expect – schools to teach students this aspect of our history.
Many states have education standards that prescribe teaching about Christian principles and traditions. Ironically, California, noted as a cutting edge, liberal state, adopted a 2005 standard stating that California sixth graders are expected to study Old Testament stories including “the Creation, Noah, the Tower of Babel, Abraham, the Exodus, the Ten Commandments, Ruth and Naomi, David, and Daniel and the Lion’s Den; selections from the Psalms and Proverbs.”
California public school students are further expected to study “Jewish Messianic prophecies, the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as described in the New Testament and the contribution of St. Paul the Apostle to the definition and spread of Christian beliefs (e.g., belief in the Trinity, resurrection, salvation).”
In Massachusetts seventh-grade students are expected to “Describe the origins of Christianity and its central features: A. monotheism; B. the belief in Jesus as the Messiah and God’s son who redeemed humans from sin; C. the concept of salvation; D. belief in the Old and New Testament; E. the lives and teachings of Jesus and Saint Paul.”
“There are incredible opportunities right now in our public schools,” Buehrer said. “The problem is, many people – including teachers – don’t know they are there, and if they do, they are afraid to act.”
Gateways’ goal is to equip parents, teachers, administrators and school board members so that they help students learn about the importance of Judeo-Christian history, thought and values.
“There are Christians involved at every level in the public schools,” Buehrer said. “Our strategy is to equip them so they do what their state academic standards expect and the courts already allow.”
Buehrer speaks around the country to educators, parents and pastors. In June, American Family Association caught up with him in Cullman, Alabama, where he presented “Faith, Freedom and the Public Schools,” a six-hour, professional development training for 287 teachers from the area. The event was co-sponsored by the Cullman City Schools and Cullman County Schools.
Dr. Jan Harris, superintendent of Cullman City Schools told the Cullman Times, “It was strictly about knowledge and laws, and it empowers the teachers with the knowledge needed to be most effective in the classroom.”
That evening, Buehrer spoke to local pastors over dinner and then conducted a two-hour session on “Keeping the Faith in Public Schools” for area churches.
New resource for parents, educators
To help equip parents and educators, Buehrer has put his 25 years of successful strategies in a practical Bible study format titled Keeping the Faith in Public Schools. It covers 10 key topics and equips parents to help teachers in the public schools gain the courage to honor students’ religious freedoms and teach about the importance of the Bible and America’s Christian heritage.
Among the 10 topics are what it means to be one nation under God, students’ religious liberties, restoring the true meaning of Christmas, academic standards and the Bible, and how to address a concern at your school.
“It is stunning to realize that the majority of Christian families send their children to public schools, but churches don’t have the resources to equip them to be Christian influences in their kids’ schools,” Buehrer said. He designed Keeping the Faith in Public Schools to fill that gap.
The study has three primary benefits. First, parents are equipped to help children stand strong in their faith while attending public schools, and they learn how to create faith-friendly schools for their children and their classmates. Second, each of the 10 topics will draw participants closer to God as they learn how their faith relates to everyday areas of life. Finally, participants are equipped to bless others in their schools and churches by helping them move from fear to freedom regarding the intersection of public schools and Christianity.
In Tucson, when Mitchell was told he couldn’t talk about God in his first-grade classroom, his mother, Bernadette, contacted Gateways. Using Buehrer’s resources, she went to the teacher and principal and graciously explained what the law really says about students’ freedom of religious expression. They were not interested.
But Bernadette persisted. She then went to the superintendent, who agreed with her. Subsequently, the school district conducted in-service training for all of its teachers regarding the religious freedom of the district’s 10,000 students.
Meanwhile, Bernadette continued to study the issue and even became a Gateways Bible study leader. After participating in the study, more parents began talking to their children’s teachers about including Jesus in the Christmas season, and teachers began amending lesson plans accordingly.
Furthermore, the school board reestablished daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance (after years of neglect) and had students recite the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence, thus acknowledging that our rights are endowed by God.
Bernadette wrote Gateways, “What I found most encouraging was that I could see and hear how the participants were moving from fear to freedom!”
Teaching tolerance and character
Excerpt from Keeping the Faith in Public Schools:
When some use the word tolerance, they mean a non-critical acceptance of just about everything someone says or does – the more you accept, the more tolerant you are. Too many people think they are being tolerant when they are actually only expressing indifference (“whatever”), or apathy (“who cares?”), or even recklessness (“why not?”). Improperly understood, “tolerance” can lead to disarming students of their proper convictions.
You will find a more practical – and Biblical – definition of tolerance in the dictionary’s second definition of the term: “the allowable variation from a standard.” This is the definition by which we most commonly live. We establish a standard of what we think is best. We then establish an allowable variation from that standard.
This practical, standards-based definition is valuable for classroom instruction because it honors students’ moral values developed by their religious education and families. Rather than teach them that tolerance is best demonstrated by an absence of judgment, it teaches that tolerance requires judgment in two areas: first, establishing a standard, and second, establishing the limits of the allowable variation.
However, when our children determine that something is justifiably intolerable, it is important that they express themselves with kindness, patience, courtesy, humility, and self-control. They can do this while holding firmly to their beliefs.
Choose one topic for dinner conversation, for family devotions, or while driving somewhere and ask your children to diagram one standard, one allowable variation, and what is justifiably intolerable in the following areas: a school rule, music you enjoy, classroom conduct and an acceptable TV program. When they have established what is justifiably intolerable in a particular situation, ask them how they can express their intolerance with good character. (Such as: kindness, patience, courtesy, humility, respect, love or self-control.)
For information about the Keeping the Faith in Public Schools Bible study, call 800-929-1163, or visit www.gtbe.org. Single copies, $24.95; five or more, $18.95 each; 10 or more, $16.95 each; ($3 s/h for first copy, plus $.50 for each additional copy). Send checks to Gateways to Better Education, P.O. Box 514, Lake Forest, CA 92609.
For other stories and information like the one provided in this article, visit www.afajournal.org