The first thing I want to say is that I had nothing to do with this episode, so don’t start calling me the Religion Police. It’s simply one of the many admirable actions of the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) in its incessant battle to keep religion out of the public-school classroom. And that includes college classrooms.
In May of last year, a professor at Erie Community College in Williamsville, New York did a bit of proselytizing toward two of her students. This led to a letter of complaint to the College’s president from attorney Rebecca Markert at the FFRF. To quote the letter (names redacted by request):
It is our information that [name redacted], [subject redacted] professor at Erie Community College’s South Campus, approached a student with a manila envelope during her May 8, 2012 [subject redacted] final, and gave it to him with instructions to open it when he was alone We are informed she did the same to at least one other student in the class. The package contained a bible, which was addressed directly to this student and contained a personalized message on the inside cover and select passages underlines for him to focus on. Please find enclosed pictures of this bible.
[JAC: here are the offending items; I love the fact that the FFRF doesn't capitalize "bible"!]:
The FFRF’s letter continues:
This student, who practices a different, minority religion, was offended by this offering. He stated that “it made me feel extremely uncomfortable, particularly the wording of her message to me, which I felt was bizarre and unstettling. We are also informed that Professor [name redacted] bans “using the Lord’s name in vain” in her clasroom. Please find enclosed a scanned copy of the flier outlining this rule. [JAC: I've left off the professor's name.]:
This “gift” from Professor [name redacted] constitutes an official endorsement and advancement of religion over nonreligion, and specifically Christianity over all other faiths, within a public school classroom. Her actions, egregious in their own right, are inevitable are [sic] imputed to Erie Community College. Therefore, the College must take the necessary and appropriate steps to avoid Establishment Clause violations as well as undue pressure on students, who may be non-Christian or nonreligious. Regardless of religious orientation, students have signed up for a math class, not for proselytizing.
The FFRF then goes on to cite case law against professors producing unwarranted religious expression in the classroom, including Piggee v. Carl Sandberg College (“holding that a community college had a right to insist that a part-time cosmetology instruction [sic] refrain from engaging in speech related to her religious beliefs while serving as an instructor”), and Bishop v. Aronov, a case we’ve read about in the Ball State case. In the Piggee case, the court held that the professor’s “passing comments to his class about Jesus Christ, even with his personal disclaimer, constitutes an Establishment Claus concern for the University.” As the FFRF letter notes:
The university directed the professor to discontinue “1) the interjection of religious beliefs and/or preferences during instructional time periods and 2) the optional classes where a ‘Christian perspective’ of an academic topic is delivered.” Id. The court found this decision was valid because “without unnecessarily restricting the academic freedom of a faculty members [sic], the University endeavored to avoid both Establishment Clause violations and undue pressure upon students.” Id. Therefore, to avoid these concerns the court concluded “the University as an employer and educator can direct [the professor] to refrain from expression of religious viewpoints in the classroom and like settings.”
Note again that this is not high school, but a public college, and some of the classes that were found unacceptable were optional. I have still not heard a good argument from readers (or from Larry Moran, who’s getting increasingly exercised on this issue, to the point of arguing that it’s okay for a professor to teach alchemy in a college chemistry class) why, in a country where the separation of Church and state is mandated (we’re not in Canada, Larry!), it’s not okay for high school teachers to inject religion into their classes but it’s okay for professors at state universities to do so. There is no relevant difference here: in both cases it’s government entanglement with religion. There is no Constitutional provision for “academic freedom,” but there is for separating religion from government activities, which include teaching in public schools. Do remember that teachers and professors at public schools are government employees.
At any rate, the Erie case didn’t have to be litigated, for on May 13 the Legal Affairs department at Erie Community College ordered the offending professor “to refrain from communication with students that would conflict with [her] duty to show complete neutrality toward religion or would otherwise promote religion.” They also warned her that if she didn’t follow this directive she’d face “serious disciplinary consequences.” I understand the professor agreed with this sanction.
To my mind, this is a lesser offense than Eric Hedin actually teaching religiously inspired “science”, like intelligent design” in a science class at Ball State University. But in both cases the professor was proselytizing for Christianity in the classroom. Both activities are unconstitutional, and at Erie Community College they realized it. Let’s hope the officials at Ball State University do the same.
This is indeed a slippery slope, and without a watchdog to prevent even the merest proselytizing for faith in public school classes, we’d be on the downhill slide toward a theocracy. Thank Ceiling Cat that the FFRF acts as this watchd-g.
Do consider joining the FFRF (you can do so here). Unlike other secular organizations, they don’t engage in drama—they go about their job quietly, and effectively. To my mind it is the most admirable of the antireligious organizations. And kudos to their team of watchd-g lawyers!