As a 30-year veteran public school teacher, I often read horrific stories in Freethought Today about church/state violations in our schools. People at freethought meetings and conventions are always citing school proselytizing as a huge problem, and the public schools absorb the blame for everything that is wrong with our society.
In all my years teaching in three states and three different countries, I have seen little of this type of thing from the inside. In defense of the schools, and more importantly, the students, I want to share some good news about what I have experienced.
Part of the middle school enrichment program that I run involves an annual mock trial contest called Law Adventure, sponsored by the New Jersey Bar Foundation. Each year, students are given the choice of two topics and are asked to create and submit a case brief. Winners are invited to perform their cases in front of a judge and jury in the spring.
In the 2012 contest, one of the topics was First Amendment rights violations. One of my seventh-grade teams was intent on making a case involving religious rights in the schools. I swear on The God Delusion that I did not influence them! Much discussion was held about different religions, current cases in the news and how the school community might respond. The students agreed to move forward.
The case, Singh v. Fair Side School, involved Melodie Singh, a high school honors choir soloist, and her very religious choir teacher. When the choir was invited to compete at a national event, the director chose an overtly religious spiritual for them to perform. Melodie, who was to sing the soloist parts, felt that the teacher knew she was an atheist and thus would opt to sit out for a song that contained words such as “I have surrendered my life to Christ.”
In an interesting twist, the students had the director, Jay Tempo, show favoritism for students who attended his church. The full case brief can be found at njsbf.org/educators-and-students/programs/7-8-lawadventure.html under “2012 Law Adventure Mock Trial Exercises.”
After we were notified that our case had won an honorable mention, we prepared to take it to the next level. This is where we turned it into a script, choosing parts and performing it for the school and community. Students, staff and parents were impressed with our case, the acting and the impressive award.
Many of them had no idea what an atheist was, but knew that Melodie had clearly been wronged. The student jury decided she’d been discriminated against and found in Melodie’s favor. I do acknowledge that many church/state violations occur in schools, and I am appalled that my own union came to the defense of the teacher in the case of Matthew LaClair.
Matthew was a high school junior who was harassed in 2006 after secretly recording his history teacher, who was also a Baptist youth pastor, making over-the-top comments, including warning students that by rejecting God, “you belong in hell.” The compelling story is detailed in a documentary titled “In God We Teach.”
I like to believe that these situations are less common, and I’m grateful that FFRF and other organizations are involved in this litigation. In my experience, most students, teachers and parents are careful and respectful when discussing religious topics and ideas.
Diane Cormican is a middle school enrichment teacher, FFRF member and president of the Lehigh Valley [Pa.] Humanists.
[Editor’s note: Diane’s other mock trial team placed first in the competition in a product liability case.]