It is sometimes easy to forget that struggles over religion aren’t just being fought in the military, our prisons, and the public square, but in our schools as well. After all, aren’t our public schools supposed to be safe and secular institutions? The truth is that religious minorities are often ostracized, and can face intimidation and harassment in school settings, especially when local Christians feel threatened.
“Many Mount Vernon Middle School students have been vocal in their support of science teacher John Freshwater in his claims to a First Amendment right to display a Bible on his desk. But are those students willing to grant someone else equal rights to remain neutral or to disagree? Several comments from students and parents indicate that acceptance and religious tolerance is a one-way street for many concerned.”
It seems that Christian children aren’t very “big tent” in their support of a Christian science teacher, a man who has allegedly done some seriously controversial things in the classroom.
“My daughter Arie told me about a Jewish child who brought his Torah to school when other students brought Bibles in support of Freshwater … He thought he was supporting freedom of religious expression, and the other kids just ripped him apart. ‘What are you doing?’ they asked. ‘You can’t support Mr. Freshwater, you’re Jewish’ … I don’t think people realize the depth of what’s going on between the students. It’s a mob mentality right now. It’s peer pressure. To not wear a T-shirt and to not bring your Bible when they say bring your Bible and wear a T-shirt, you’re asking for trouble … one of Arie’s friends wore a T-shirt to school that read, ‘I don’t need to wear a special T-shirt to be a Christian.’ That individual was reportedly pushed into the lockers and called a ‘stupid atheist b****.’”
Perhaps the parents supporting Freshwater don’t mind a little “collateral damage” among the student body so long as it is in the name of their “religious freedom”. Of course that fierce sense of religious freedom often disappears when non-Christian faiths are involved.
“Several people, [Beth] Murdoch [Arie's daughter] said, have asked what the response would be if a teacher had a Wiccan book or a Koran on the desk. ‘Would the students be supporting a teacher under those circumstances?’ she asked. ‘I don’t think so. I understand [Freshwater] wants to protect his rights, I so understand that. But you have to be compassionate to other people, too.’”
When battles like this erupt, those who suffer the most are often the students who don’t toe the popular line. Freshwater’s supporters have created an “all or nothing” atmosphere, and while the school board has asked him to put his bible away during school hours, and is investigating claims of proselytizing, the matter most likely won’t calm down for children during the school year. Creating an unsafe learning environment for religious minorities and Christians who won’t participate in activism supporting Freshwater.
If a public school can’t provide a safe learning environment for children of all faiths (or of none) then they have failed as a learning institution, and a house-cleaning needs to take place, regardless of the political blow-back the school board may face.