Religion

These Christian teachers want to bring Jesus into public schools – legally

A cross hangs from a filing cabinet in Victoria Tomasheski's classroom at Garfield Heights Middle School in Garfield Heights, Ohio, where she teaches computer classes.
A cross hangs from a filing cabinet in Victoria Tomasheski's classroom at Garfield Heights Middle School in Garfield Heights, Ohio, where she teaches computer classes. The Washington Post

Finn Laursen believes millions of American children are no longer learning right from wrong, in part because public schools have been stripped of religion. To repair that frayed moral fabric, Laursen and his colleagues want to bring the light of Jesus Christ into public school classrooms across the country – and they are training teachers to do just that.

The Christian Educators Association International, an organization that sees the nation’s public schools as “the largest single mission field in America,” aims to show Christian teachers how to live their faith – and evangelize in public schools – without running afoul of the Constitution’s prohibition on the government establishing or promoting any particular religion.

“We’re not talking about proselytizing. That would be illegal,” said Laursen, the group’s executive director. “But we’re saying you can do a lot of things. ... It’s a mission field that you fish in differently.”

Not everyone agrees that it’s acceptable for teachers to “fish” in public schools, where government officials are not allowed to promote or endorse any particular faith.

The nation has been fighting over the role of religion in public education for more than a century, and in helping public school teachers understand – and push toward – the legal boundaries of expression, Laursen and his colleagues are wading into one of the most fraught issues in American life.

Some advocates say the organization urges teachers to invite Christianity into the classroom in ways that might be unconstitutional and that are bound to make some children – and their parents – uncomfortable.

“They appear to be encouraging teachers to cross the line,” said Daniel Mach of the American Civil Liberties Union, which fought the Christian Educators Association in a 2009 court case over Florida teachers’ religious expression at school. “Decisions about the religious upbringing of children should be left in the hands of parents and families, not public school officials.”

Others say that there would be outrage if teachers of any other faith were being encouraged to express their beliefs in the classroom, legally or otherwise – particularly at a time when anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise and some parents have complained that academic lessons about Islam can amount to religious indoctrination.

“What this really amounts to is a privileging of the majority,” said Katherine Stewart, a journalist whose questions about Christianity in her children’s public school led her to write a 2012 book, “The Good News Club,” about evangelical Christians’ efforts to reach students in school. “If a Wiccan, Muslim, or Satanist public school teacher were to try to put their sacred texts on their desk ... they would likely be shut down.”

Expressing religion at school

Laursen said he believes teachers of every faith have – and deserve – the same constitutional protections as Christian teachers when it comes to expressing religion at school.

He and some other Christian educators say the culture in many public schools feels particularly hostile to Christianity compared with other religions, making it intimidating to admit a relationship with Jesus. And they say that by explaining the law in concrete terms, the Christian Educators Association has empowered them to express their faith with new boldness.

The organization is a nonprofit with broad goals that include supporting Christian teachers and “transforming public schools through God’s love and truth.” It is a professional association that serves as an alternative to traditional teachers unions, offering its approximately 6,000 members liability insurance and other benefits.

Though the Christian Educators Association is small, it is at the center of a pending U.S. Supreme Court case that has the potential to substantially weaken public sector unions in more than two dozen states. The association is a plaintiff in the case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which challenges the right of teachers unions to collect dues from nonmembers.

The other plaintiffs are 10 individual teachers, eight of whom are members of the association; they argue that they should not be forced to support a union that uses their dues to promote policies – and politicians – with which they fundamentally disagree.

The association, founded in 1953, also publishes a journal, produces a podcast and organizes prayer groups. It began its training program six years ago, and since then hundreds of teachers across the country have participated.

During weekend-long seminars in hotel conference rooms, the group teaches teachers that they have a right to pray with colleagues during breaks or at lunchtime. They may lead before- and after-school religious clubs for students. They can honestly answer students’ questions about their beliefs, and they may even pray with students outside work hours.

Teachers are told it’s OK to keep a Bible on their desk and teach about it in class, so long as it fits within the curriculum. And they are urged to witness for Jesus by acting in a godly manner, in part so that others might be provoked to wonder – and ask – why they have so much kindness and compassion.

If bringing nonbelievers to Jesus can be compared to growing crops, then “the part that a teacher in public school can do is till the soil and plant the seed,” said Laursen, a former teacher, principal and superintendent. “Very often, they’re not personally involved in the harvest.”

California high school math teacher Harlan Elrich said he was inspired by the training he attended several years ago. He sends out prayers and inspirational verses to an email list of like-minded colleagues, and sometimes they pray together in person.

He plays Christian music in his classroom before and after school and sometimes during tests, if students request it. He keeps a Bible out on his desk.

When a student asked him recently about the meaning of life, Elrich felt free to answer, saying that “in my view, the meaning of life is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Elrich said he would be “thrilled” to lead a student to Christ, but he is careful to stay within the bounds of the law and doesn’t proselytize at school.

As he put it: “I’m not going to ask a student, ‘Do you want to become a Christian?’ unless we have had a full conversation about it and they have expressed it is a possibility.”

An elementary school teacher in rural Kentucky, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to avoid drawing attention to his community, said that after attending a weekend training session, he started scheduling weekly meetings of a Fellowship of Christian Athletes club. Students gather in the school gym just before class begins – a time when they are normally socializing and eating breakfast.

Most weeks, at least 75 percent of the school’s students participate, listening and praying as guest speakers and other students offer prayer and testimony. “I feel overly blessed with how much I’m able to do with students as far as faith,” the teacher said.

‘Daniel Weekends’

The trainings are dubbed “Daniel Weekends” after the Old Testament figure who was saved by God after he was thrown into a lion’s den. Daniel was said never to have lost his faith despite decades of exile in Babylon, where he lived among nonbelievers.

As the Christian Educators Association sees it, Christian teachers in public schools are “modern-day Daniels,” working in schools that are hostile to their faith.

“God sent Daniel, He sent Jesus, He’s sending you and me to be the light of the world,” a presenter told about two dozen teachers last month at a Daniel Weekend in Louisville. “God has a plan, a good plan, for why he has planted you where you are.”

The association allowed a Washington Post reporter to observe the final half-day of the Louisville training, declining a request to attend the entire session amid concerns that a reporter’s presence would make teachers uncomfortable and less open. The Post also interviewed 10 teachers who have participated in Daniel Weekends; most requested anonymity, some out of fear of provoking backlash against their schools and others because they didn’t have supervisors’ permission to speak publicly.

Teachers are nominated to participate in Daniel Weekends by former participants, pastors,and principals. They attend for free, with the association covering meals and lodging.

From Friday evening until Sunday afternoon, they discuss not only the ins and outs of the First Amendment, but also about how to confront the challenges they face as Christian teachers. They talk about how to communicate more openly and how to build relationships with colleagues and students. They sing together and they pray.

Victoria Tomasheski, a middle school teacher in suburban Cleveland who first attended a training in 2012, said the weekend was both personally and professionally rejuvenating. She said that she was grateful to learn about the First Amendment and that she follows the law earnestly.

She also hopes that living according to biblical principles creates a nurturing environment and sparks those around her to ask questions. “When they ask, ‘Why are you so positive? Why do you always find a silver lining?’ It’s, ‘To be honest with you, it’s because of my faith,’” she said.

A teacher in a suburban Kentucky school said the Daniel Weekend he attended several years ago helped him shed his grouchy disposition and recommit to treating his students with patience and love. “That weekend sort of took me back, made me think about why I got into teaching to begin with. I wanted to be a role model for kids,” he said.

As the weekend draws to a close, teachers create plans to transform their schools – and their students – with what they characterize as God’s love and truth.

In Louisville last month, teachers were at times emotional and tearful as they explained the weekend’s impact.

Newly committed

Some said they were newly committed to seeing their students as children made in the image of God, deserving of love and capable of greatness. Some said they took to heart the message to be positive – to “stop whining and start shining” for Jesus. Others said they were grateful to realize that they were not the only Christians wrestling with how to be true to their faith while working in a public school.

A music teacher said that she had realized how often she stopped herself from sharing her faith – unnecessarily. “I’m really limiting the way that the Lord can use me and my school,” she said. “I’m really excited to see what He is going to do now.”

Charles C. Haynes, a First Amendment expert at the Newseum Institute’s Religious Freedom Center, gives the Christian Educators Association high marks for its efforts to help teachers understand the law and how it applies to their lives in the classroom.

Many people believe that public schools should be religion-free zones, but that’s simply not the case, Haynes said. While the Constitution says that government cannot establish religion, it also says that the government cannot inhibit religious freedom – a provision that allows students – and to a lesser degree, teachers – to express their faith in school.

“The First Amendment does not exclude religion from public schools,” said Haynes, who co-authored guidelines on religious expression in schools that have been endorsed by dozens of groups from across the political and spiritual spectrum, including the Christian Educators Association. “It gives us the ground rules for how religion comes into public schools.”

As agents of the government, teachers cannot inculcate religion at school, so they cannot lead students in prayer during class. But they also are private citizens with rights to free speech – so they can, for example, pray with students at church on Sunday.

Mindy Heine, a Christian parent of three who co-founded a ministry for public school parents and teachers in a Minneapolis suburb, said she appreciates teachers who legally express their faith in school.

“It’s empowering because it’s helping kids understand the Constitution and our rights,” she said. And teachers are modeling authenticity, she said, “sending students a loud message that they, too, can be confident about what they believe.”

But parents sometimes feel differently, especially when they are in the minority.

Erika Estrada, a Catholic mother of two, said that evangelical Christianity seemed to permeate her son’s elementary school in Dallas. Many teachers and students attended the same local church, Estrada said, and it felt difficult to distinguish the church from the school, White Rock Elementary.

“There’s this very prevalent message that this is our school, and you’re simply a guest,” she said. She said her son – who attended White Rock from 2005 to 2012 – felt bullied because of his Catholicism, ostracized by classmates on the playground and sometimes by teachers in the classroom.

Estrada, whose daughter still attends White Rock, said she reported her concerns about her son’s experience at the time. The current principal has not received any complaints about religious expression since she arrived at the school in 2012, according to Tim Clark, a spokesman for the Richardson Independent School District.

“RISD is confident that the school is in compliance with laws and guidelines related to religious expression in a school setting,” Clark said.

Sharif El-Mekki, a Muslim principal of a Philadelphia charter school, said he believes that children can learn powerful lessons when they see that teachers of different faiths are able to treat all of their students with equity.

But he said that teachers who are open about their faith also must be ultra-sensitive to ensuring that all students feel included. El-Mekki, who goes to the same place of worship as some of his students, said he thinks often about how to make sure that other students don’t feel slighted.

“How do I make sure that my Christian student, my atheist student, feels respected and honored?” he said. “At the end of the day, that’s my North Star.”

Laursen said he believes the nation’s morality began crumbling in the 1960s, when the Supreme Court found school-led prayer unconstitutional.

Laursen said he has faith that there will be a national revival, a return to Christianity. But in the meantime, he believes it is critical for Christian teachers to remember that they need not check their faith at the schoolhouse door.

Most people are school-aged when they “come to faith,” he wrote in the association’s magazine in 2014. And most students in public schools do not consider themselves Christians. “The ‘fishing pond,’” he wrote, “is well stocked for those open to sharing the faith.”

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