Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Teaching Religion at History in Public Schools

Over at Findlaw, Vikram Amar has an interesting piece on a current school-teacher controversy in California. The teacher in question, who describes himself in legal pleadings as an "orthodox Christian" (which is presumably is different from an Eastern Orthodox Christian), wants to use selections from various American historical documents that mention God (Declaration of Independence, various state constitutions, writings of the Founding Fathers) in his elementary school class. The school has said no, on the grounds that the teacher is really going to preach rather than teach. The teacher sued, arguing that this treated violates his First Amendment rights. As Amar points out, that may not be a real issue anyway, as the school has every right to limit what teachers say in the classroom. The only real issue is whether the school is cracking down on this teacher in particular for mixing religion with his teaching, while allowing others to do the same.

Personally, I see nothing wrong with historical documents that mention God (or a Creator or whatever) in a history being used in (of all things) a history class. Examining those kinds of documents can be enlightening (even to fifth-graders) and I despise the censoring or redaction of historical documents used in such settings. But on the other hand, why is the teacher's religious preference relevant to the inquiry at all? The use of the docs should be the same regardless of whether the teacher is Christian, Hindu, or atheist. So why is it essential to make that fact prominently known in the complaint? To me, it says that there probably is an ulterior motive at work, that has more to do with saving souls than teaching history.

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