Teachers and Religion in the Public School Classroom

Published August 1, 1999

When school board members in Moravia, New York, discovered that a popular teacher didn’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance in his classroom because he objected to the phrase “under God,” they wouldn’t allow him to speak at a graduation ceremony, according to a recent report in Education Week.

Students at Moravia High School had asked Bruce D. MacBain, who teaches civics and history there, to address the event, but board members nixed the idea.

“One of my biggest concerns is that kids are coming to me complaining because they feel forced to say it,” MacBain told Education Week.

In stark contrast, a Minnesota high school science teacher was barred from teaching biology last year despite giving assurances to school officials that he had never mentioned “God” or the Bible during his science classes. According to a recent account in the Washington Times, Rodney LeVake has filed suit against the Minnesota Independent School District 656 for religious discrimination and violation of his First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

In a position paper for school officials, LeVake said he would teach the theory of evolution and accompany it “with an honest look at the difficulties and inconsistencies of the theory without turning my class into a religious one.” The place for a religious treatment of the issue was “within the student’s family and place of worship,” he argued.

Despite LeVake’s assurances, school officials said his religious views were in conflict with his ability to effectively teach evolution. They relieved him of his duties for teaching biology at Faribault Senior High School, although he continues to teach general science classes there.

The consensus among scientists is that understanding biology first requires an understanding of evolution, the theory that life on Earth evolved and adapted over millions of years. However, some critics of evolution say that students in science classes also should learn about other possible explanations, such as intelligent design: the theory that life came about intentionally. Others advocate creationism, based on the Bible’s account of the creation of life.

The debate over evolution and creationism is raging in several states, including Kansas, Nebraska, and New Mexico. In Texas, references to evolution had to be trimmed from a biology textbook before the state board of education would approve it. Legislators in Alabama took a different approach: They required every biology textbook to sport a sticker saying that evolution is not proven.

In Kansas, the state Board of Education is split 5-5 on the issue. One side would emphasize evolution as a cornerstone of science, while the other would de-emphasize evolution and introduce the idea that the complexity of the universe requires an intelligent designer. In Lawrence, citizens have formed opposing advocacy groups: pro-evolution FLAT, Families for Learning Accurate Theories; and pro-intelligent design POSH, Parents for Objective Science and History.