Freedom of Religion – Part 2

Church Law and Tax 1989-01-01 Recent Developments Freedom of Religion Richard R. Hammar, J.D., LL.M.,

Church Law and Tax 1989-01-01 Recent Developments

Freedom of Religion

Can a public high school science teacher be dismissed for repeatedly making references to religion in his classes over the objections of his students and superintendent? Yes, concluded a Pennsylvania state court. The teacher allegedly had made numerous references in his classes to God, Christianity, demons, devils, prophesies from the book of Revelation, and hell. He allegedly required one student (who had been temporarily ousted from class for disciplinary reasons) to pray with him in a hallway as a condition of reentering the room, and informed his classes that “God is truth and truth is God.” The teacher was warned repeatedly that his actions could lead to his dismissal. When asked pointblank if he would stop imposing his religious views on his classes, he answered “no,” and explained that he “was a Christian and that part of his mission was in a sense evangelistic.” The teacher was dismissed, and challenged his dismissal in court. The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled that the dismissal had been appropriate. It observed that “where a teacher indicates his preference for a particular type of religion and seeks to promote that religion or any religion among his students, the teacher’s constitutional right to freedom of religion and speech must give way to our country’s historic [nonestablishment of religion] clause] set forth in the first amendment.” The court acknowledged that discussions in public schools “about religion, where relevant to classroom course material, are permissible,” but it concluded that the teacher’s conduct “exceeded the constitutional boundaries within which discourse about religion is permissible.” Rhodes v. Laurel High School District, 544 A.2d 562 (Pa. Common. 1988).

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