Parents across the country sent their children off for their first day of school yesterday, and the students of one Indiana class were sent home with an unusual request.
A first-grade teacher in McCordsville, Indiana sent a letter to parents, demanding that their children not discuss Jesus in the classroom. “I have had a group of about five students using the words God, Jesus and Devil in conversation,” wrote the teacher. “If you go to church or discuss these things at home, please have a talk with your child about there being an appropriate time and place of talking about it.” The letter was sent to a local Fox News affiliate by a concerned parent.
According to the first-grade teacher, the students erupted into a debate about God early into the start of the semester. The teacher instructed the students directly not to mention God (or Jesus) in school, but was forced to issue a letter — after students continued to discuss their faith.
“With Mccordsville Elementary being a public school, we have many different religions and beliefs, and I do not want to upset a child or parent because of these words being used,” the letter explained.
The message was clear: Christian students are not welcome in public school.
The Indiana School board received intense scrutiny from outraged parents who felt their children were being silenced by their teachers, forcing the school board to retract the letter and apologize for its contents.
According to Shane Robbins, the Mt. Vernon Community School Corporation (MVCSC) Superintendent, the letter was a misguided attempt by a new teacher to regain control of her classroom. “From a school vantage point, it was a learning process for a young teacher,” he told local reporters, adding that the teacher is young, and has only been a teacher for two years.
Even if misguided, the letter reveals a deep confusion among teachers over how to balance student rights in a public school. Various Supreme Court decisions from 1962 onward have calcified the standard that a public school cannot officially endorse (nor prohibit) religious practices — unless they are a disruption to the learning environment. Essentially, public schools are expected to adopt a “live and let live” approach to religion in the classroom.
Superintendent Robbins clarified the point. “To simply summarize, MVCSC employees can neither advance nor inhibit religious views. Trying to limit a student’s view on religion is a violation of a student’s first amendment rights,” he wrote in an official statement. “However, if the discussion becomes an academic disruption, then as a district, we can intervene to maintain the integrity of the educational process while at the same time being sure to not violate a student’s constitutional rights,” Robbins continued.
Robbins explained that the young teacher drafted the letter without discussing it with the school board. Adding that, “I believe this was a learning experience and an opportunity for us to improve as a school district.” It is unclear whether the teacher will face any disciplinary action.