I’m a regular reader of Dear Prudence, a.k.a. Emily Yoffe, who doles out advice on all sorts of things from romance to workplace politics. That’s why I’m pleased to see that she mentioned Americans United as an option for a distressed parent who wrote in complaining that her son’s elementary school teacher is excited to proselytize in class.
Recently, one of Yoffe’s readers said her child’s teacher sent an email to all the parents of her students, and that email included a link to the teacher’s personal website. When the parent visited the site she saw the teacher had written that “she couldn’t wait to share Christ’s love with the children.”
As a religious minority living in the Deep South, this concerned parent said she “deal[s] with this kind of thing every single year” from school-sponsored Bible study to overtly religious Christmas concerts. She said her older daughter, a middle schooler, even feels pressured to be Christian because her peers tell her she’s going to hell otherwise.
Like most parents, this one expressed a desire to help her children fend off these coercive attacks without causing her kids “to be ostracized or suffer retribution from the teachers.”
The reader never said expressly that her children attend public schools, but it sounds like that’s the case. Yoffe made that assumption, noting correctly that “there’s something wrong with teachers who don’t understand their job description means keeping their explicit religious beliefs out of the classroom.” And, indeed, there most certainly is.
Yoffe, however, initially advised the parent to tread lightly.
“If your concerns are mostly about afterschool Bible study or Christmas carols, I think you have to just shrug this off,” she said. “Mostly you need to be teaching your children why you love your religion, showing them the joy and sustenance it brings you, and instructing that you will treat those of different faiths with the respect you wish all of them treated you.”
But another reader wrote in later to tell Yoffe about none other than… Americans United! In response, Yoffe said:
“One commenter suggested that if the situation becomes too difficult for your children you could contact Americans United for Separation of Church and State (www.au.org). But if it’s not intolerable, the best way to deal with this is by learning how to be in a culture with deeply held believes that are different from yours. Religion doesn't belong in public school classrooms. But making a federal case of its every intrusion will only make it more difficult for your children.”
The problem described here by this anonymous parent is right in AU’s wheelhouse. We might get most of our headlines for things like our upcoming argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in Town of Greece v. Galloway, but every year Americans United sends out more than 100 letters to various groups or individuals in government who may be inhibiting religious freedom in some way. This includes public schools. And when we contact schools, our first step is always to explain the law to them and ask that they stop their bad behavior, whatever it may be.
In these cases, we always strive to resolve matters outside of court. Often, a letter from our attorneys explaining the law is enough. Also, we do everything we can to resolve these problems out of the public glare to protect the confidentiality of the people who come to us. Our goal is always to resolve the problem quickly and quietly.
Every year we help dozens of parents just like the one who wrote to Yoffe, and we are proud of that fact. So if you or your children are facing any sort of religious coercion at the hands of government officials, please don’t hesitate to contact us. We’re here to defend church-state separation, and – pardon a little bragging – we’re quite good at it.