The Ethical Dilemma: Can Teachers Wear a Cross to School?

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When Religious Acting-Out Needs a Trip to the Principle’s Office:* Recently a teacher was forced to remove her religious items from school and is now suing. I’m wondering where the line falls. I’ve never heard of anyone objecting to public teachers wearing jewelry such as a Christian cross or a Jewish Star of David, not even my child’s public school teacher who has them around her neck, on her ears and wrists, pinned to her blouse, AND dangling from her purse! But if she had religious objects displayed on her desk, I guess that would be over the line. What if she removed her huge necklace and hung it on the bulletin board? What about teachers–or students–sporting Scarlet A or EvolveFISH or Flying Spaghetti Monster accessories, t-shirts and backpacks? Would a-religious symbols be treated the same as religious symbols?

 —When Does a Cross Cross the Line?

Dear Cross,

That teacher must look like a Christmas tree (or Chanukah bush, I’m not sure which). According to Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, if someone were to press the case, her so not non-obtrusive religious fashion statement would probably be deemed over-the-top even if she didn’t have a five- or six-pointed star atop her head.

Mach explained that although public school teachers don’t shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate, when they are in class they act as representatives of the government and must take care not to promote, endorse, or denigrate any religious viewpoint, or religion in general. “The lines are not always precise, but courts have typically given public schools considerable leeway to guard against Establishment Clause violations by teachers,” he said. As the Supreme Court explained, “Families entrust public schools with the education of their children, but condition their trust on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family.”

More recently, a federal court of appeals rejected a teacher’s challenge to his school’s restrictions on in-class religious expression by teachers: “We consider whether a public school district infringes the First Amendment liberties of one of its teachers when it orders him not to use his public position … to preach his own views on the role of God…to the captive students…. The answer is clear: it does not.” In a related case , another court rejected a guidance counselor’s lawsuit against a school district that declined to renew her contract because of her past religion-tinged actions with students. That court noted, “Teachers and other public school employees have no right to make the promotion of religion a part of their job description and by doing so precipitate a possible violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.”

For specifics on teachers’ religious garb, the “bible” for many educational associations is the First Amendment Center’s effort to summarize the law, “A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools.”  It states, “Teachers are permitted to wear non-obtrusive jewelry, such as a cross or Star of David. But teachers should not wear clothing with a proselytizing message (e.g., a ‘Jesus Saves’ T-shirt).”

While these guidelines are subject to interpretation and challenges, it seems that low-key religious symbols displayed on one’s person are apt to be tolerated. But when they take on a life of their own (e.g., the bedecked teacher), pop up on school furniture or walls, or are disseminated through oral or written proclamations, they’ve got to go.

Ethically, it behooves everyone in public schools—teachers, students, parents—to tone down exhibition of religious belief as well as disbelief. Humanists should consider how they feel about schools plastered with religious content and realize it’s the same if the shoes (red Prada loafers?)  are on the other feet. Freedom does not mean license to trumpet one’s beliefs while trumping someone else’s. Religious advocacy, pro or con, does not belong in public classrooms.

*”Principle” is spelled intentionally.

Religious Withdrawal Pains: Since I finally realized that religion is myth and that only atheism makes sense, I have been experiencing a feeling of loss: loss of comfort from the old standard religious myths from childhood, loss of a sense of community, even loss of part of myself. I often feel that I am better able to enjoy our earth and humanity and awesome science with all their wondrous possibilities because I have shed the old myths. Yet sometimes I feel that “something” is missing, or just different. There’s some anger, too: How in the world did I ever accept such nonsense? But then I’ve read that humans are hardwired to believe in myth. Do others who have come to humanism or atheism later in life often feel this way?

—Waiting for God-oh!

Dear Waiting,

Most people who lose their faith experience a residual sense of loss along with euphoria, and not just those who do so later in life. I have a friend in her 90s who has been an unapologetic atheist for about three-quarters of a century, yet she fervently wishes she could get herself to believe that there is something after death, that she will be reunited with all her loved ones who have passed before her. Since she can’t get past the idea that there’s nothing but this life, she’s trying to figure out what that life was all about before it’s over. She’s come up with some good answers, but they’re not entirely satisfying—not the epiphany she craves.

Even people who were brought up from birth without religion see others around them involved in their rituals and celebrations and feel left out. Humans are social creatures who gravitate toward groups, and religious identity may be the most powerful of all, even beyond family (hence the phenomenon of people excommunicating—or executing—relatives because of religious transgressions).

These are some reasons why many people never leave their religions even if their beliefs have left them, and why a certain portion of those who do leave end up going back. It’s lovely to have some authority telling you what’s right and wrong, what to do, think, eat, wear, celebrate—and that your shortcomings are forgiven. People are happy to park their confusing, complicated, conflicted independence at the door of a religious institution or guru who claims to have the answers and you just have to do what they tell you.

Being atheist is hard. Suddenly there’s nothing out there watching over you. Suddenly you have a lot more responsibility for yourself and others—you aren’t trusting or praying or waiting for a supernatural force to solve your problems. Suddenly everything you “knew” to be true is subject to question and a lot of it doesn’t hold up—not only religious teachings, but also any type of authoritative dogma that you used to accept without a second thought. And in addition to the loss of comforting certainty, there is dual anger—anger about the years you spent and the consequences you paid for believing myths, and anger about the myriad challenges that come with being a nonbeliever, including membership in an unpopular, maligned minority without the benefits usually associated with being part of a group.

But as you observe, there certainly is the exhilaration of living more authentically, of opening your eyes to what is instead of shutting them to cling to what isn’t. You can seek support in various types of secular and humanist communities, including local chapters of the American Humanist Association, Ethical Culture Societies, humanist groups affiliated with Unitarian Universalism, or by having a sense of humor about the human, and humanist, condition.

Joan Reisman-Brill is a writer based in New York City and certified Humanist Celebrant. She received her BA in English literature from the University of Chicago, an MA also in English lit from the University of Michigan, and an MBA in management and marketing from New York University. She has worked in public relations, marketing and myriad facets of writing and editing for nearly four decades. She has been steadily increasingly her humanist identification and activism at an accelerating rate, and while she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, she welcomes this opportunity to tackle the questions.