American idol: God does belong in public schools, if a student wants him there

(istockphoto) If you ask a class of 5th graders to write about someone they “look up to,” don’t be shocked … Continued


If you ask a class of 5th graders to write about someone they “look up to,” don’t be shocked when at least one of them decides to write about God.

That’s exactly what happened in Millington, Tennessee earlier this month when 10-year-old Erin selected God as her idol because, as she explained, “He is the reason I am on this earth.”

A red flag went up for Erin’s teacher who told the student she couldn’t pick God and directed her to choose someone else.

Erin, who sounds like a very good little girl, complied and picked Michael Jackson, a choice acceptable to the teacher.

Not surprisingly, Erin’s mother was upset by the message the teacher was sending to Erin and the other kids about not expressing their faith in class.

After the mother went public with the story, the “God is my idol” controversy circled the globe with tweets in multiple languages.

Another black eye for public schools.

What’s significant about this incident and why I’m giving it even more attention is what happened next: The school district immediately recognized that the teacher had made the wrong decision. In a meeting with the family, school officials, including the teacher, apologized and acknowledged that Erin has the right to write about God.

Under current law, as explained in the U.S. Department of Education guidelines, “students may express their beliefs about religion in the form of homework, artwork and other written and oral assignments free of discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.”

Of course, students attending public schools can’t take over classrooms by delivering sermons or leading classmates in prayer. But if student speech meets the requirements of the assignment and Erin’s clearly did students are free to express their religious or non-religious views.

The Tennessee school district’s quick response in support of Erin is in sharp contrast to how a number of other schools have handled these conflicts in a string of high-profile cases over the past decade.

Who can forget, for example, the school district in New Jersey that went to court to defend their decision to keep a second-grade child from singing “Awesome God” at her school’s talent show?

In 2006, a court ruled that the school district was wrong to censor the child. But the damage had been done, illustrating how one bad story can create the false impression that all public schools are hostile to religion.

Fortunately, a growing number of schools are getting the message that the First Amendment doesn’t mandate a religion-free zone in public schools. School officials today are far more likely to support the religious liberty rights of students and correct teachers when mistakes are made.

But what’s still missing in many districts is in-service training that informs teachers about current law under the First Amendment. As an attorney friend of mine likes to say, the time to buy the fire truck is before the fire.

Erin’s teacher later admitted that she was confused about what the law required and nervous about allowing God-talk in a public school classroom.

Conflicts and controversies like this can be avoided if school districts make sure that all teachers understand the difference between school speech promoting religion, which the Establishment clause of the First Amendment prohibits, and student religious expression, which the Free Exercise and Free Speech clauses protect.

In other words, little Erin is not the government. If God is her idol, she has every right to say so.

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  • nkri401

    Good God, why don’t you rapture and take all your kinds to the heaven ASAP.

  • breal18

    In her defense, I would approve a make believe deity over Michael Jackson.

  • nkri401

    My comment was towards the author –

    Is he saying “God” is his idol as well?

    Would it be worse if the teacher said “God” is not be idolized?

    What if the 10 year old said “Satan”?

    And Mr. Haynes – “school” or “church”: what is so confusing??

  • ThomasBaum


    You wrote, “Good God, why don’t you rapture and take all your kinds to the heaven ASAP.”

    Should they take the Constitution and the Bill of Rights also, since you seem to be against someone having an opinion and expressing it that is different from yours?

    Freedom of speech isn’t and shouldn’t be that one is able to say what others agree with but to be able to say what others disagree with, don’t you think?

  • Catken1

    Nkri, then, is also entitled to express his/her opinion, too, then, right? You are not “against someone having an opinion and expressing it” just because you express a negative opinion of their beliefs and opinions.
    S/he did not suggest any action to suppress anyone else’s speech or opinions or behavior, just a likely-tongue-in-cheek wish for an action on God’s part.

  • nkri401

    Mr. Baum,

    Freedom of speech does not mean you can say whatever you want, whenever you want nor whereever you want. Or is that what you think?

    School is called school because it’s not a church.

    BTW, I’m not sure where I said you must agree with me or not say anything.

  • Secular1

    I think the teacher was ill advised to do what she did. I think there is a fine line to be drawn, here. To expect a ten year old to make such nuanced differentiation is far too much to ask. Especially when we have adults and parents that are so immature and cannot deal with these or pretend not to have any appreciation of secular education. I think more senior students must be expected to be totally secular but not ten year olds. Perhaps that admonishment should be for the students who have been exposed to separation of church & state concept in the class room. If they still do that, they must be flunked.

  • nkri401

    “If God is her idol, …”, then the youngster should be gently reminded that idolatory is against the ten commandments, lest she goes to hell.

    Not that I think the youngster will go to hell,
    Not that I wish the youngster will go to hell,
    In fact, that any religion could believe that a youngster could go to hell, for the eternity no less, for whatever reason (eating meat on Friday), I wish I could go back to K-PAX.

  • ThomasBaum


    You asked, “Freedom of speech does not mean you can say whatever you want, whenever you want nor whereever you want. Or is that what you think?”

    I think that it is pretty sad that when a student says that they look up to God that they are told that is not acceptable, shouldn’t she or anyone else be entitled to their beliefs no matter where they are?

    She wasn’t shoving anything down anyone else’s throat, merely expressing herself, are we so afraid of other’s opinions?

    It seems to me that the freedom of speech/religion was originally put in to keep the religious from forcing themselves on others, has the pendulum swung?

    You then wrote, “School is called school because it’s not a church.”

    Should she have lied about Who she looked up too since it was school and not church?

    You also wrote, “BTW, I’m not sure where I said you must agree with me or not say anything.”

    I guess you didn’t exactly say that, you just proved that one need not believe in God to have a “holier than thou” attitude.

  • di89

    Generally religious topics are OK so long as the work actually fulfills the requirements of the assignment.

    There would be nothing wrong with–next time–narrowing the scope of choices to human people, etc. if that would aim the results of the work more toward what the teacher had in mind. If you want students to research someone’s historical time then God wouldn’t fit, for instance. You could request they pick an explorer, or a political leader, or someone in arts and sciences, etc.

  • di89

    It looks like the result was not the kind of writing the teacher had in mind…in that case the response would be to let this go, and more narrowly tailor the assignment next time.

    And it’s not as if a child who “looks up to” God couldn’t *also* look up to someone else, in a different way.

    I can’t help but wonder if Michael Jackson was chosen just to make the contrast more contrasting.

  • ThomasBaum

    I agree with you that the teacher was “ill advised” but I totally disagree with you that “more senior students” are not allowed to express themselves.

    Does other people’s belief in God scare you so much that they should pretend or lie to appear to be “totally secular” which in the context it is written sounds to me to be atheist rather than separation of church and state.

    I believe totally in separation of church and state and I also believe that no one should have to kowtow to believers or non-believers.

    No one should be able to cram their belief down other people’s throats whether their belief is that there is a God, gods or no gods.

    There is a difference between separation of church and state and separation of a person and his/her beliefs, this is what separation of church and state is about.

  • nkri401

    Mr. Baum,

    1. Technical point : Atheist cannot be “holier than…” since “holiness” is a religious term (Christian context, Buddhism is atheistic religion). However, an Atheist can be an arrogant boor and a SOB just like anyone else.
    Mea culpa.

    2. Do I think the teacher over reacted? Yes.

    3. But that is not the reason for this author to advocate to bring back God to the school.

    4. Why should one lie because you are in the school? The teacher should not and did not tell her not to look up to God.

  • nkri401

    5. My comment is about what this author is advocating because of this teacher/5th grader story. I’m not saying what the youngster said is even remotely inappropriate; the teacher over reacted a bit, the mother of the 5th grader got requisite Christian indignation (My religious freedom) and this author tries to push his religion into the PUBLIC school.

    IMHO, of course.

  • nkri401

    So why then is this author advocating bringing “God”, protestant God no less, into the public school?

  • nkri401

    May be the teacher did not want to get started on “your God is not the true God” debate.

  • ThomasBaum

    As far as “But that is not the reason for this author to advocate to bring back God to the school”, I don’t know but I would say that the author wants to bring “his version” of God into the classroom of a public school, I do not think that this would be appropriate.

    Teaching his own children or if he has his own school is one thing but not a state sponsored school.

    Teaching “religion”, all religions that is, in a sociological way and its impact on world history, I think, would be appropriate but probably at a later grade, I really don’t know when it would be age-appropriate.

    People’s various beliefs have had a significant impact in the history of mankind but as far as “teaching beliefs”, for lack of me not having a better way of putting it, is not and should not be in the realm of public school education.

    You wrote, “I’m not saying what the youngster said is even remotely inappropriate; the teacher over reacted a bit,”

    I agree with you, the “youngster” was just expressing herself and it’s a shame that teachers have to feel like they are walking on eggshells at times.

  • ThomasBaum

    Looking back over the article, it doesn’t seem to me that he is “advocating bringing “God”, protestant God no less, into the public school” but allowing students to express themselves, if it applies to all students and all students’ beliefs, including the belief that there is no God or gods, what’s the problem?

  • nkri401

    The problem, in my opinion is that exactly letting “and all students’ beliefs, including the belief that there is no God or gods,” is really, really hard to do and especially getting all the parents of all the student to agree that indeed, all students’ beliefs, including the belief that there is no God or gods, has been represented fairly is even harder to do.

    So if all the student refrained their religious expression until they get to their church, out of respect for other’s religion, I think, it would be much better and the schools will have more time to work on science and arts and sports, etc.

  • nkri401

    BTW, “…God does belong in public schools, if a student wants him there” headline seemed to be the “bring back God to the school”.

    I realize, headline is not necessarily written by the author…

  • LafayetteSquare

    Might just as well argue that crack belongs in public schools if the students want it badly enough.

    To be fair, those “Someone I Look Up To” assignments are misguided. Children should be taught to be their own role models.

  • Rongoklunk

    It’s disgraceful that a five year-old has already been indoctrinated to believe in a god, when in all likelyhood there is no god. The poor kid should be allowed to grow up and as an adult decide what to believe. Science doesn’t recognize such a thing as a god. Making a child believe in one when as far as we know there’s no such thing is a form of child abuse. Much better to help her and other children to seek out truths whenever they can, and enjoy the reality of existence, without the desperate wishful thinking of religious belief.

  • webdevgal

    Whackamole! The child has a right to believe and say whatever is her belief. She simply doesn’t have the right to make you or I follow her belief choices, and neither do you. Its not “disgraceful” at all – she is 5 years old and can better make her own choices later.
    If GW Bush said Jesus was his model, how can you slam a child for doing the same?

  • nkri401

    “The child has a right to believe and say whatever is her belief. ”

    Even if the child says he looks up to Satan??

  • Linda/RetiredTeacher

    Many people do not understand the First Amendment, which prohibits the establishment of religion by the government. Because a public school teacher represents “the state” she is not permitted to “establish” any religion in her classroom. Nor is she permitted to preach against religion.

    However, the individual citizen has the right to religious expression and that includes the teacher and her students. This means that the teacher can pray privately (and I’ll bet many do) any time during the school day. The students can bring their Bibles to school, get together with other students, and read it together at recess or lunch, AS LONG AS NO TEACHER IS INVOLVED. A child can share his religious experiences (e.g. First Communion) with the class, as long as he initiated it himself and the teacher does not give positive or negative feedback (e.g. “Oh, I’m a Catholic too. I hope all of you will make your First Communion” or “Do you really believe in that? I don’t.”)

    The following school activities are legal:

    Child chooses on his own to say grace out loud before his lunch.

    Teacher instructs class about three major world religions in a factual way

    Teacher prays to herself (“Lord, help me.”)

    Student starts Bible club at lunch time but does so without adult involvement

    These activities are illegal:

    Muslim principal leads whole school in daily prayers

    Christian teacher leads whole class in prayer

    Teacher tells students there is no God and the Bible is “mythology.”

    Teacher encourages students to attend her synagogue

    Teacher asks student to lead class in daily prayer

    Teacher’s aide forms Bible class at recess

    Parents who want religion in public schools should instruct their children to pray or read religious materials during the day. Teachers who want religion should practice it privately. Each citizen in our country has the freedom to practice his religion. In order to exercise a right, a citizen must first know that he has it.

  • di89

    You’d have to allow expressions of any kind of religious belief (or lack thereof) equally so long as they’re civil and not attacking people, etc., whether people found them distasteful or not.

  • di89

    Also, student led activities should be non-disruptive and polite to those around them.

  • Linda/RetiredTeacher

    Yes, student-led activities cannot be disruptive.

  • PhillyJimi1

    A teacher made a mistake. The mistake was corrected. How exactly is this a black eye for public education? It wasn’t a public school policy that refuses to teach biological evolution in a science class room. Now we’re talking about a particular version of religion influencing the teaching in public school.

    Somehow I have a feeling if this little girl’s god was Allah and she wrote an article how the great Allah knocked down the evil twin towers on 9-11. Would Charles C. Haynes be defending this little girls rights the same way?

  • Catken1

    You have to allow expressions of religious belief, and also expressions of dismay and disgust at another’s religious belief, as Rongoklunk’s above.
    I’m queasy about indoctrinating children in religious beliefs, too, given that they haven’t the judgment or the adult experience to properly evaluate them and are predisposed to believe for a lifetime what their parents teach them as children, however illogical or cruel. But it is, in fact, their parents’ right to do so, even if it makes me uneasy.

  • gonnagle

    I was more shocked that Michael Jackson was seen as preferable. Just beceause he exists and God doesn’t is beside the point.

  • nkri401

    As I recall, Jesus admonished us to pray in private, not in public like school lunch room. He had a name for those who wanted to show who was more pious in the public square.

  • Secular1

    Thomas, public education is a secular enterprise. That said teh concession I was making for the lower class grade students because their experience level and ability reason and grasp certain abstract concept is limited. To stifle them at an early age by insisting on the martinetsque demands defeats the purpose of education that is to learn to reason and learn to reason by making mistakes. However, in case senior grade students the expectation is their reasoning ought to be at a level that they must be able to make that nuanced distinction. If tehy are not able to make it means they are deficient, which means they ought not to have been at the grade level they were put in. Hence the flunking to set them to the grade level their reasoning is at. Hope that clears it up. So I am not advocating that beliefs ought to be shoved down teh throat.

  • Jay16

    If you had read your Bible, you would know that according to the Ten Commandments, you are not to have any idol besides God.