Teach a Civics Lesson about Martin Luther – Teaching without Fear, Part 12

This year, October 31 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of 95 objections to the Roman Catholic Church on a church door in Germany. As a civics lesson, students of all faiths and no faith should understand the freedom of religion they enjoy because of what Luther started.

CIVICS CONNECTION

Understanding the benefits of America’s religious heritage to our civic life is important. Part of the American value system, rooted in Christian thinking, is that people not only have the freedom to hold to their religious beliefs, but to live by them and express them publicly, as well.

In 1517, Luther had no intention of leaving the Catholic Church. But, holding fast to his conviction against certain church practices and doctrines got him expelled.

At the time, governments in Europe enforced religious conformity for the Church. Luther wrote about why government authority should not be used to coerce belief. He argued, from Scripture, that each person is responsible only to God for his religious beliefs.

To make his case, he quoted Jesus’ statement in Matthew 10:28, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

He then wrote:

“Surely that [Matt. 10:28] is clear enough: the soul is taken out of the hands of any human being whatsoever, and is placed exclusively under the power of God. Now tell me this: would anyone in his right mind give orders where he has no authority?…It is impossible and futile to command or coerce someone to believe this or that.”

Luther’s revolutionary thinking about religious freedom spread throughout Europe and came to America with the Pilgrims, the Puritans, and eventually, America’s Founders.

THOMAS JEFFERSON AGREED

Thomas Jefferson echoed Luther’s thinking when he wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. With the help of James Madison, it became law in 1786. Before this, Virginia taxed people to support churches.

Jefferson began the legislation with this theological assertion:

“Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens [burdens], or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as it was in his Almighty power to do.”

After making his argument for freedom of religion, Jefferson’s legislation stated:

“Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever…nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” (Emphasis added)

CONNECTION TO THE BILL OF RIGHTS

The Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom was an important influence on the drafters of the First Amendment three years later:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

IN THE NEWS RECENTLY

As an example of how relevant Luther’s and Jefferson’s words are for today, we should all be concerned about religious tests expressed in Senate hearings this year (no matter what our political leanings are). (Here, and Here)

Every student in America needs to understand the Christian roots of the freedom of religious expression they might take for granted. Students will not seek to preserve what they do not cherish, and they will not cherish what they do not understand. October 31 – Reformation Day – is an excellent opportunity to teach a civics lesson about the connection between Martin Luther, religious freedom, the Bill of Rights, and their everyday lives.

 

Resources:

Video – Martin Luther Sparks a Revolution (best viewed with Google Chrome)

Parents – FREE Reformation Coloring Book for Children (PDF)

Book – Never Before In History: America’s Inspired Birth

Library of Congress – Religion and the Founding of the American Republic

 

 

 

Teaching without Fear, Part 11: Must You Give Equal Time in the Classroom to All Religious Holidays?

The Tropics Facebook AdMust you spend an equal amount of time teaching about the holidays of all world religions in order to be fair?

I hear this question quite a bit from educators, because we’re used to talking to kids about being fair. It just doesn’t seem fair if we talk more about Christmas and Easter than we talk about other religious holidays in the classroom. If we talk about America’s Christian heritage at Thanksgiving, shouldn’t we give equal class time to other religions’ festivals?

This comes from a false assumption about fairness. The false assumption is that “fairness” always means “equal.” We’ve all learned to share and share alike – meaning, everyone gets an equal portion of something.

However, there is another way to look at fairness. Fairness sometimes meaning proportional, not equal. Our system of representation in Congress is an example of the two definitions of fairness. In the U.S. Senate, fair means equal. It doesn’t matter whether you live in Texas and California, or Rhode Island and Wyoming, you get two Senators. In the Senate, fair means equal.

However, in the House of Representatives, our definition of fairness changes. Fair there means proportional to a state’s population. States like Texas, California, and New York have a much greater representation than small states, because it’s proportional, not equal. Yet, it is considered fair.

Another example would be teachers’ pay. A first-year teacher and a twenty-year veteran are going to teach the same students, the same topics, and grade the same papers. But they do not get equal pay for equal work. They get paid proportional to their years of service, and everybody (except maybe the rookie) calls that fair.

A buffet dinner is another example. A 300-pound linebacker and his model-thin wife will both be charged the same amount. But the linebacker is going to eat a lot more than his wife. They are going to eat proportional to their capacity. Even though the price was the same for both, it is considered fair.

PRACTICAL APPLICATION

When using religious holidays as opportunities to teach about culture, I recommend teachers ask themselves three guiding questions to determine appropriate proportionality:

  1. What is the predominant religion in America and what holidays will help my students understand something about that religion? Learning about America’s Christian traditions is appropriate for all students as a way of understanding much of American culture.
  2. What other religions have a significant impact in my community and what holidays will help my students understand those religions? Students should understand the various religious traditions proportional to their actual influence the community.
  3. What religions are represented in my classroom and how can I help my students understand each other? Proportional to the religious make-up of the class, acknowledgment of minority religions helps build understanding and appreciation.

________

Eric Buehrer is the president of Gateways to Better Education and author of the professional development seminar, Faith, Freedom & Public Schools: Addressing the Bible and Christianity without Mixing Church and State.

To bring the seminar to your community, call (800) 929-1163 or email kim@gtbe.org.

To receive these articles in your email inbox, sign up for our newsletter here

________

Gateways to Better Education  –  info@gtbe.org  –  800-929-1163

 

Copyright, all rights reserved

Teaching without Fear, Part 10: Understanding the Pursuit of Happiness

Facebook Ad (10)The “pursuit of happiness” today in popular culture is not the kind of happiness America’s founders declared as an inalienable right. If we are to have a flourishing society in the twenty-first century, we must raise a generation that knows what it truly means to pursue happiness.

When the Founders referred to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, they were not advocating a license to simply pursue pleasure. It was understood to be the pursuit of a virtuous (morally upright) life under the authority of God.

The Pursuit of Virtue

The Founders understood true happiness was the result of living a virtuous life. Therefore, in order to pursue happiness one must pursue virtue. Thomas Jefferson, who penned the Declaration of Independence, later wrote, “Virtue [is] the foundation of happiness.”

Benjamin Franklin, who assisted Jefferson in drafting the Declaration of Independence wrote:

“I believe [God] is pleased and delights in the Happiness of those he created; and since without Virtue Man can have no Happiness in this World, I firmly believe he delights to see me Virtuous, because he is pleas’d when he sees me Happy.”

The Founders were also greatly influenced by Christian philosopher John Locke. He wrote of “the necessity of pursuing happiness [as] the foundation of liberty” and explained that God “joined virtue and public happiness together, and made the practice thereof necessary to the preservation of society.”

To act on the Founders wisdom, we must return to the formula they outlined in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787:

“Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

While public schools cannot establish any particular religion, they need to educate students in the important principles that religion brings to society in helping its citizens live virtuous and fulfilling lives.

When the Founders wrote about “religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind,” they were referring to the three key elements for a virtuous and flourishing society — thus, a happy society. This Independence Day is a great opportunity to remind ourselves that to pursue happiness we must pursue virtue.

Teaching without Fear, Part 9: Under God in Each Century

Facebook Ad (9)Some people argue that “under God” is a form of prayer, and thus it is unconstitutional to have schoolchildren recite it. However, a careful reading of the Pledge of Allegiance reveals that we are not pledging allegiance to God. We are, instead, pledging allegiance to a republic. The Pledge describes the republic as a nation under God.

Here are four points I suggest teachers (and parents) explain about the “under God” portion of the Pledge:

  1. Thomas Jefferson explained why being “one Nation under God” is important.

Thomas Jefferson and our other Founding Fathers understood that the government does not give us our freedom. Our freedom comes from God, and the government was established to protect that God-given freedom. That was their justification for the American Revolution as stated in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson wrote:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government laying its foundation on such principles…” (emphasis added)

No king or emperor, no president or congress, no court or crowd gives us our rights. They come from God himself and are unalienable. And the Founders built America’s “foundation on such principles.”

  1. Abraham Lincoln explained why being “one Nation under God” is important.

Abraham Lincoln understood that the nation’s unity and freedom depended upon being one nation under God. In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln used the exact phrase, “nation, under God,” echoed in the Pledge of Allegiance. He began his address by referring to the Founding Fathers’ foundation in God-given rights:

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”

As Lincoln closes his remarks honoring the fallen soldiers at Gettysburg, he offered this inspiring vision:

“…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (emphasis added)

  1. Martin Luther King, Jr., understood the importance of being a nation under God who created us equal.

In his “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr., declared:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.’”

  1. It doesn’t matter that the phrase “under God” was added to the Pledge in the 1950s.

Some people argue that “under God” was not in the original Pledge and was inserted over 50 years later, thus, somehow making it illegitimate. But, that only proves it took over 50 years to get it right!  

As Jefferson, Lincoln, and King attest, the American people’s freedom—the freedom of your neighbors, your co-workers, your students, and teachers—are because we are one nation under God. Take that principle away, remove it from our national consciousness, and we will lose the very basis for the freedoms we so easily take for granted.

In the war of ideas, people will not defend what they do not cherish, and they will not cherish what they do not understand.

Teaching without Fear, Part 8: The Pledge of Allegiance in Your Classroom

Facebook Ad (8) Many students recite the Pledge of Allegiance without thinking about its meaning. They’ve done it their whole lives in schools, but most likely have never been taught what each phrase means.

I recommend teachers take a few minutes and lead their classes in discussions about the Pledge. Why do we pledge allegiance to a flag? What do words like “indivisible,” “liberty” and “justice” mean? And, why do we say “One nation under God”?   

PRACTICAL APPLICATION

Step 1: Write each phrase of the Pledge of Allegiance on the board.

Step 2: Lead students in a discussion of the meaning of each word or phrase. Lesson script:

Introduction: Today, let’s spend a few minutes learning about each part of the Pledge. You could look at the Pledge as having two parts: a dedication to our country and a description of our country.

A Dedication to Our Country

The first thing we say in the Pledge is, “I pledge allegiance.” What does it mean to make a pledge? [Invite answers] To make a pledge means to make a promise.

What does the word allegiance mean? [Invite answers] Allegiance means to be faithful or loyal. It means people can count on you to be on their side.

So, we say, “I pledge allegiance to the flag.” Why the flag? [Invite answers] Because, the flag is a symbol of our fifty states joined together to be one country. When we say the Pledge, we are promising to be faithful to our country.

The next thing we say in the Pledge is “of the United States of America.” That’s our country.

Then, we say, “and to the Republic for which it stands.” One of the really good ideas that bond us together as Americans is our loyalty to the way we govern ourselves – as a republic. That simply means that we elect people to represent us when they lead our country for a certain amount of time. They are accountable to us for the job they do. So, the flag is a representation of our country.

A Description of Our Country

Next, the Pledge describes our republic by highlighting four important parts. It describes America as “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Let’s think about each part of that.

One Nation under God.” The people who started our country (people like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson) believed that the government doesn’t give us our freedom.

They believed that our freedom comes from God. They created our government to make sure that our God-given freedom is protected. That’s what they wrote in the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration of Independence is a very special document they wrote in 1776 to declare (or announce) why they wanted to be a separate (or independent) country from England. (Read the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence.)

So, when we say “one Nation under God” in the Pledge we are reminding ourselves what the people who founded our country believed about God giving us our freedom and our government being there to protect that freedom.

Then, we say in the Pledge, “indivisible.” What does that mean? [Invite answers] It means we won’t be divided. It means that we pledge ourselves to stay together as a country, even when we disagree with each other.

The Pledge ends with the phrase, “with liberty and justice for all.” Liberty means freedom, and we commit ourselves to such liberties as the freedom to have our religion, the freedom to gather together with other people, and the freedom to speak our minds. We also commit ourselves to justice, which means being fair and right in our judgment of people.

By reciting the Pledge, we remind ourselves of these important ideas about America. Let’s all stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance.

RESOURCES:

Click here to purchase a copy of AMERICA’S STORY: The History of the Pledge of Allegiance

Click here to purchase a beautiful poster explaining each phrase of the Pledge of Allegiance

Teaching without Fear, Part 7: Easter in Your Classroom

Facebook Ad (7)How can public school educators teach about Easter’s religious aspects? Well, as I’ve written about Christmas, you can teach all about the religious nature of a holiday as long as it’s done academically and objectively-not devotionally.

Besides its religious value for Christians, the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus has historical and cultural relevance for non-Christians. Teaching students the New Testament story has academic value.

Academically Expected

Some states provide educators with detailed standards for what students should learn about the Bible and Christianity. For example, in California, sixth-grade students are expected to:

“Note the origins of Christianity in the 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).”

The new California History-Social Science framework (adopted in July 2016) also adds that students should learn that “Jesus shared the Jewish belief in one God, but he added the promise of eternal salvation to those who believe in him as their savior.” (See page 14, line 272)

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.”

As part of World History, states across the country expect students to learn about the teachings and beliefs of Christianity. Of course, the death and resurrection of Jesus is the central teaching of Christianity.

The Easter Story and Commonly Used Terms

Several terms we use in literature and conversation come from the Easter story. We talk about somebody being a Judas – that is, a traitor. To suffer under something is referred to as “your cross to bear.” To be criticized unfairly and persistently is sometimes referred to as being “crucified.” An action or relationship that ruins someone is referred to as “the kiss of death.” To disassociate from someone or something can be referred to as “washing my hands of this.” A person who refuses to believe something until shown proof can be referred to as “a doubting Thomas.”

Cultural & Historical Connections

Teachers can help students make cultural connections, whether it’s history, literature, art, or social movements.

Leonardo da Vinci painted his idea of The Last Supper. The legends of King Arthur refer to the quest for the “Holy Grail” — the cup or plate used by Jesus during the Last Supper which supposedly holds magical powers.

William Shakespeare assumed that those who attended his plays knew the stories in the Bible. He made hundreds of references to the Bible. For example, in his play King Richard the Second, the king says: “So Judas did to Christ: but he, in twelve, found truth in all but one; I, in twelve thousand, none. God save the king! Will no man say, amen?”

During the Civil War, a popular song was entitled “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It is still well known across the country today. You may recognize its stirring chorus, “Glory, glory, hallelujah! His truth is marching on.” It reflects a spiritually-motivated desire to end slavery and references the sacrifice of Jesus as an example to live by. For example, one verse reads: “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me: As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, While God is marching on.” A later version changed the words to “let us live to make men free.”

In 1963, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was jailed for his civil rights actions. Some people called him an extremist-being too bold and going too far in his activities. He wrote a response, entitled “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He used the Bible to explain the importance of being extreme for goodness. He used the death of Jesus as an example:

“In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime-the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

J.R.R. Tolkien was an English author who wrote The Lord of the Rings. He was a Christian and used biblical allusions in his writing. For example, Gandolf’s dramatic fight against the giant demonic figure Balrog of Moria illustrates the battle between good and evil. Gandolf sacrifices himself to save his friends, but later is “resurrected” in robes of white and appears to Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas in a forest.

Ben Myers lists twenty-five of his favorite pieces of literature that use Christ imagery. These include Don Quixote, Jim in Huckleberry Finn, Billy Bud, Jim Casey in The Grapes of Wrath, Aslan in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, and Simon in Lord of the Flies.

PRACTICAL APPLICATION

Terminology
It may be helpful to use the term “recognizing Easter” rather than “celebrating Easter.” Using the word “celebrate” may cause some people to feel that you are promoting religious participation in the holiday. There is a difference between “participating” in the holiday in a devotional manner and “recognizing” the holiday in an engaging academic manner.

It is also best to teach about Easter using words of attribution such as: “Christians believe…;” “The Bible says…;” “Martin Luther King, Jr., referenced the crucifixion when he wrote…;” and so forth.

Reading the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus to students is permissible to help students gain a basic academic familiarity with a person who has influenced so many people throughout history in government, art, literature, music, and social movements.

Presented with an eye toward education, not endorsement or devotion, recognizing the religious aspects of Easter is a legitimate academic activity.

RESOURCES:

Alliance Defending Freedom – What Can Be Done in Public Schools Regarding Religious Holidays

Literary Christ Figures (Power Point used in South Plantation High School – Plantation, FL)

How to Identify a Christ Figure in Literature (from Mill Valley School District – Mill Valley, CA)

Teaching without Fear, Part 6: Christmas in Your Classroom

Facebook Ad (6)Many educators want to teach about Christmas but are afraid to do so. Their fear usually stems from complaints they have had (or think they will have) from parents, administrators, or colleagues. The good news is, schools and teachers CAN teach about the religious aspects of holidays as an important part of learning about American culture.

Part of a Student’s Education
In the case of Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, the U.S. Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit, upheld the constitutionality of the school’s policy on religious holidays. The policy stated:

“Music, art, literature, and drama having religious themes or basis are permitted as part of the curriculum for school-sponsored activities and programs if presented in a prudent and objective manner and as a traditional part of the cultural and religious heritage of the particular holiday.”

Reading the Christmas Story
In Stone v. Graham, the Supreme Court stated “The Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like.”

Christmas Carols
The Supreme Court assumes your school is having children sing Christmas carols. In Lynch v. Donnelly, dealing with the public display of a nativity scene, the Court commented:

“To forbid the use of this one passive symbol while hymns and carols are sung and played in public places including schools, and while Congress and state legislatures open public sessions with prayers, would be an overreaction contrary to this Nation’s history and this Court’s holdings.” (Emphasis added)

The largest organization of public school music teachers, the Music Educators National Conference (MENC), states that “the study and performance of religious music within an educational context is a vital and appropriate part of a comprehensive music education. The omission of sacred music from the school curriculum would result in an incomplete educational experience.”

PRACTICAL APPLICATION

Terminology
It may be helpful to use the term “recognizing Christmas” rather than “celebrating Christmas.” Using the word “celebrate” may cause some people to feel that you are promoting religious participation in the holiday. There is a difference between “participating” in the holiday in a devotional manner and “recognizing” the holiday in an engaging academic manner.

It is also best to teach about Christmas using words of attribution such as: “Christians believe…;” “The Bible says…;” “Christmas is special for Christians because…;” and so forth.

Nativity scenes can be used as teaching aids to illustrate the cultural lesson regarding the birth of Jesus. They are not to be permanent fixtures in the classroom.

Christmas carols can be sung as educational experiences for culture understanding; not religious experiences. In a musical program it is best to include non-religious songs like “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman” along with traditional carols.
 
Reading the story of the birth of Jesus to students is permissible to help students gain a basic academic familiarity with a person who has influenced so many people throughout history in government, art, literature, music, and social movements.

Presented with an eye toward education, not endorsement or devotion, recognizing the religious aspects of Christmas is a legitimate academic activity.  
 
RESOURCES:

VIDEO: Just Say “Merry Christmas.” Watch this 5-minute video of a religious Jew urging American’s to say “Merry Christmas.”  
 Alliance Defending Freedom – What Can Be Done in Public Schools Regarding Religious Holidays

 
Christmas CardGive “
A Gift for Teacher” to educators you know. It is an eight-page booklet designed to look like a greeting card. It uses a humorous story to explain what can legally be done at Christmas. It includes a model policy, quotes from court cases, and lesson plan ideas.

 

Teaching without Fear, Part 5: The World Series and Thanksgiving

Facebook Ad (5)With the World Series happening, imagine if the subject came up in class. But instead of explaining that it is the annual championship series between the top team in the American League and the top team in National League, you taught your students that the World Series is a nostalgic remembrance of the first World Series in 1903, between the Boston Americans and the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Imagine telling your students that we celebrate the World Series every year by talking about what happened in that first World Series in 1903, by gathering with family and eating the hotdogs the baseball players ate, and sometimes even dressing up like an old baseball player.

Too often, unfortunately, that’s what educators do when they teach about Thanksgiving. They teach it as a nostalgic remembrance of what happened nearly 400 years ago.

When I am lecturing at universities in their Schools of Education, I’ll ask the students how many of them were taught, when they were in public schools, that Thanksgiving is a time to remember how the Pilgrims invited the Indians to a dinner to thank them. And, of course, all the hands go up.

The fact of the matter is, we celebrate Thanksgiving every year because the President of the United States asks the nation to thank God for the blessings we’ve received during the previous year. That’s why it’s an annual event.

George Washington started things off by calling on the nation to “acknowledge the providence [provision] of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.” He never mentioned the Pilgrims.

Until Lincoln, it was celebrated on different days around the country. He wanted to promote national unity and established the day in November for the entire country to celebrate together. No mention of the Pilgrims.

While modern presidents have gotten into the politically correct habit of mentioning the Pilgrims and Native Americans, they also call on the nation to thank God.

It is perfectly acceptable for public school educators to teach that Thanksgiving is a time when the entire nation gathers, at the request of the President, to thank God for the blessings we have received as a nation and individually.

PRACTICAL APPLICATION

Lesson Plan: Teaching Students about the Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation

Use the President’s annual Thanksgiving Proclamation to teach about the holiday. Here is last year’s: 2015 Thanksgiving Proclamation (In this one he quotes Washington’s reference to God, but doesn’t personally refer to God.)

A better one that is in the historic spirit of Thanksgiving can be found in President Obama’s 2012 Proclamation. (In the opening paragraph he states “This day is a time to take stock of the fortune we have known and the kindnesses we have shared, grateful for the God-given bounty that enriches our lives.”)

In his 2011 Proclamation he states: “As we gather in our communities and in our homes, around the table or near the hearth, we give thanks to each other and to God for the many kindnesses and comforts that grace our lives.”

Teaching without Fear, Part 4: The Ten Commandments in Public Schools

Facebook Ad (4)Posting the Ten Commandments in public schools has recently been in the news in Texas and Georgia. I understand the desire to “take a stand” for God in our schools, and posting the Ten Commandments is seen by some as such a stand to take. However, I encourage educators to move beyond the symbolism of a plaque on a wall and, instead, focus on teaching about the influence of the Ten Commandments within an academic subject. The Supreme Court actually supports this use of the Ten Commandments in public schools.

In the case of Stone v. Graham the Supreme Court addressed the issue of using the Ten Commandments in Kentucky public schools. A state law required posting the Ten Commandments in every classroom with private funding and with a statement at the bottom of the poster pointing out that “secular application of the Ten Commandments is clearly seen in its adoption as the fundamental legal code of Western Civilization and the Common Law of the United States.”

The Supreme Court found this unacceptable because:

“The Commandments do not confine themselves to arguably secular matters, such as honoring one’s parents, killing or murder, adultery, stealing, false witness, and covetousness. Rather, the first part of the Commandments concerns the religious duties of believers: worshipping the Lord God alone, avoiding idolatry, not using the Lord’s name in vain, and observing the Sabbath Day.”

While the Court ruled that in this particular case the Ten Commandments couldn’t be posted in the way the Kentucky law required, the Court also went out of its way to note:

“This is not a case in which the Ten Commandments are integrated into the school curriculum, where the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like. Posting of religious texts on the wall serves no such educational function.” (Emphasis added)

When appropriately connected to an academic subject, the Supreme Court supports public school educators teaching students about the Ten Commandments. Substance over symbolism is much better ground on which to take a stand.

PRACTICAL APPLICATION

Review your state’s academic standards for references to the Ten Commandments. For example, in Georgia students are to “explain the development of monotheism including the concepts developed by the ancient Hebrews.” In Texas, students are to “identify the impact of political and legal ideas contained in the following documents…the Jewish Ten Commandments.”

If your state is using Common Core English/Language Arts standards, the Bible is referenced four times for its relevance to literature. An English teacher recently told me how she uses this to teach about the Ten Commandments as the students read The Crucible.

Because of the influence of the Ten Commandments on Western culture, as the Supreme Court pointed out, they are relevant to teaching students about a variety of topics such as ethics (for example, bearing false witness), social movements (MLK Jr. developed his own “Ten Commandments”), legal issues (for example, murder and theft), and holidays (for example, Shavuot, is a Jewish celebration of the Torah and Ten Commandments. Pentecost is a Christian holiday during the same time as Shavuot).

Watch a series of 5-minute videos on the Ten Commandments that may give you ideas for their cultural relevance. They are produced by commentator, Dennis Prager. CLICK HERE.

Teaching without Fear, Part 3: Addressing Religious Holidays at School

Facebook Ad (3)Thanksgiving and Christmas will soon be here. Do you need to strip them of their religious meaning when you recognize them in a public school? No, you don’t.

This question was addressed in the federal court case of Lynch versus Sioux Falls School District. The school district had a very common-sense approach to handling holidays. It stated:

“Music, art, literature, and drama having religious themes or basis are permitted as part of the curriculum for school sponsored activities and programs if presented in a prudent and objective manner and as a traditional part of the cultural and religious heritage of the particular holiday.”

The ACLU didn’t like it and sued the school district. And…the ACLU lost at the local level. It appealed to the federal level, and lost again. In its ruling the Court wrote:

“We view the thrust of these rules to be the advancement of the students’ knowledge of society’s cultural and religious heritage as well as the provision of an opportunity for students to perform a full range of music, poetry, and drama that is likely to be of interest to the students and their audience.

“It would be literally impossible to develop a public school curriculum that did not in some way affect the religious or nonreligious sensibilities of some of the students or their parents. School administrators should, of course, be sensitive to the religious beliefs or disbeliefs of their constituents and should attempt to avoid conflict, but they need not and should not sacrifice the quality of the students’ education.”

Sadly, in too many schools today the quality of the students’ education is being sacrificed because of misinformation. People are saying, “We can’t do this! The courts are all against it! It’s illegal! We’re going be sued!”

The fact of the matter is, the courts have supported appropriate inclusion of religion in the curriculum, whether it involves studying about it or recognizing it in relation to a holiday.

PRACTICAL APPLICATION

  1. See if your school district already has a policy regarding recognition of holidays. If so, be sure to quote the policy on any holiday-related assignments or communication going home to families.
  2. If your school district doesn’t have a policy regarding holidays, recommend your school board adopt the Sioux Falls School District policy which has already stood the test of ACLU lawsuits.
  3. When communicating with students, parents, and colleagues, refer to acknowledging or recognizing a holiday. You should not celebrate it. Not everyone celebrates a particular holiday, but anyone can recognize it in fun and educational ways that include music, art, literature, and drama.