Give the kid the school's independent-thinker award. It is tough for a student to stand up and say the teacher is wrong. But an unidentified Cheektowaga High School kid did just that, when faced with a science teacher who carried her religious convictions into the classroom.
The teacher, 29-year-old Joelle Silver, is now making a federal case out of it. But my sympathies are with the student who gave the teacher a lesson on the separation of church and state.
Silver reportedly hung posters with biblical verses in her public school classroom last year, and put up a drawing of three crosses on the wall. The anonymous student was uncomfortable with a science teacher cross-pollinating theology with biology. The student contacted the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, which alerted school officials. Silver said she removed the religious references, under threat of dismissal. She recently sparked a firestorm by suing district officials for gagging her free-speech rights.
I understand Silver's desire for self-expression. But, to my mind, the students' right to not have a teacher's religious beliefs thrust in their faces overrides her urge to spread the Word.
A teacher represents the school, and taxpayer-funded public schools are, by extension, a part of government. Our government does not – for good reason – endorse any religion over another, or over nonbelief.
The Founders were no fools. European countries with state-sponsored religions historically took to the battlefield, typically Protestant vs. Catholic. Jefferson & Co. concluded: Not here. The Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
“As a teacher in a public school, she is subject to the limits with which government engages with religion,” said Tom Flynn, of the Amherst-based Center for Inquiry, a humanist organization. “She is obliged by the First Amendment not to show religious favoritism.”
Aside from the church/state issue, a classroom is not a gathering of equals. Silver is the authority, with disciplinary and grading power. By posting biblical verses, she takes advantage of her bully pulpit to promote her religious views. Up against that pressure, I applaud the kid who had the guts to toss the First Amendment penalty flag.
I am sure Silver believes that hers is the true faith. But that belief is not shared by students who are Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists or agnostics. “The message the teacher – and [by association] the school and the government – sends to students,” Flynn said, “is that Religion A is better than Religion B, and that is totally improper.”
Offended Christians should consider how they would feel if a Muslim teacher had a Quran on the desk. Or if a Jewish instructor hung a Star of David on the bulletin board.
Give a gold star to the student, who took a stand on principle. And thanks to Silver, for providing every civics instructor with a teachable moment.