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Sunday, October 20, 2013
The Constitution’s First Amendment expresses the often unsettling tension between the right of citizens to exercise their religion freely and the government’s responsibility to treat all religions neutrally.
While this tension is felt in all areas of the public sector, it is arguably felt most acutely in our public schools.
Since the early 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled consistently that while public school teachers certainly have the right to practice religion on their own time and even have the right to some public displays of faith while on the job (such as wearing religious jewelry), public school teachers cannot actively set out to convert students while teaching them in the classroom.
If the intent of any lesson taught in public schools is to draw students to a particular faith (or drive them away from one), the lesson is unconstitutional.
In a recent Roanoke Times article (“Salem High principal lives his faith ,” Oct. 4 news story) on Salem High School Principal Scott Habeeb’s “Called to Teach” conferences and website, Habeeb claims to understand where the First Amendment’s line is drawn. He clearly states that proselytizing in public schools is forbidden and that all he is doing is helping teachers be more “Christ-like” by “encouraging” them to “love students unconditionally.”
Habeeb contends that any reading of his conference handouts or website that suggests he is teaching teachers to actively bring students to Christ is out of context.
To make his point, Habeeb cites one of his conference presentation slides that states that “sharing Christ does not have to be a legal issue.”
The problem, of course, is that just because Habeeb claims to know where the legal line is drawn, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he does.
And anyone associated with the city of Salem, and public schools generally, deserves reassurance that the school’s principal understands the law.
A reasonable solution to what Habeeb claims is a misunderstanding would be to encourage people to visit his Called to Teach website and deduce the proper context of his message themselves.
Oddly, though, Habeeb has chosen to take down the site so as not to appear “divisive.”
I suspect that Salem residents would prefer the risk of divisiveness over suspicions that their principal is trying to cover something up.
Without access to his website, we are forced to rely on his conference literature that is still available online and easily found through a Google search. In one of his presentations, Habeeb has a slide stating that “we must actively set out to inspire students and point them to Christ.”
It is ultimately the responsibility of Salem School Superintendent Alan Seibert to determine if Habeeb truly understands the moral and legal obligation to protect the Constitution that comes with being the school’s principal.
If an evangelical culture exists at Salem High School, it’s only a matter of time before a lawsuit is filed against the city.
Seibert has the responsibility of ensuring that doesn’t happen.
Seibert, who was also listed as a speaker (along with Habeeb) at a Called to Teach conference in August 2010 but ultimately decided not to attend, must himself have a clear understanding of the First Amendment’s line in public schools.
Since he’s the one entrusted with protecting the city from a lawsuit, it would be helpful to know why he chose not to attend the conferences after his biography and talk title had been submitted.
Did he decide it was inappropriate? If so, why?
And if it was inappropriate for him to attend, why not for Habeeb?
These are serious questions with serious implications — not only for Salem but for public schools everywhere. It’s not enough simply to write them off as the result of a misunderstanding. The people of Salem and the commonwealth deserve better than that.
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