A while ago, a high school teacher in Kearny, NJ, made news by preaching God and Jesus in his public school history class. A student recorded some of it and reported it to school officials, because the preaching — not teaching — made him uncomfortable.
The teacher clearly crossed the line, for a class in public school, and I find it incomprehensible that anyone can defend lectures like this:
“If you reject his gift of salvation, then you know where you belong,” Mr. Paszkiewicz was recorded saying of Jesus. “He did everything in his power to make sure that you could go to heaven, so much so that he took your sins on his own body, suffered your pains for you, and he's saying, ‘Please, accept me, believe.’ If you reject that, you belong in hell.”
One religious and social leader has this to say:
“This is extremely rare for a teacher to get this blatantly evangelical,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit educational association. “He's really out there proselytizing, trying to convert students to his faith, and I think that that's more than just saying I have some academic freedom right to talk about the Bible's view of creation as well as evolution.”
And academic freedom is exactly what's hurt by this sort of thing. There are good reasons to have discussions of religion in public school, especially in history class, not as preaching, but to talk about what's behind various historically important events. Yet each time something like this comes up, we become collectively warier, less likely to risk stepping over that line.
Despite my being an atheist, I have a fascination about religion as a social phenomenon. I'm interested in what people believe, how they came to those beliefs, and how their lives are affected by them. I'm interested in how belief systems, and conflicts among those with different belief systems, have shaped the world. Our country was founded by those who, we're told, came here to escape religious persecution. How can we understand that without discussing the issues that drove them to leave their homes?
Beyond that, an understanding of the beliefs of our friends and neighbours can help us get along with them and coexist with them peacefully. Teaching our children about other people's beliefs, and teaching them to accept those beliefs with respect even when they seem wrong to us, would go a long way toward reducing the conflicts we have with each other.
But we've reached a point, fueled in part by ghastly errors in judgement such as Mr Paszkiewicz's, where we can't even mention religion for fear of crossing a line.
Part of the problem is as Maggie commented here, that people of one belief system often object to the implication of validity of any other, and that prevents us from having open discussion about this. And that's clearly where Mr Paszkiewicz came from: that his belief is right, so why not tell it to the class?
Mr Paszkiewicz and those like him have done our education system and the children learning in it a terrible disservice. He's converted no one; he's “saved” no one. He's only made it more difficult to have discussion of religious issues in class, even when such discussion makes sense and is important to what the kids are learning.
Update (20 Dec): See the followup entry.