According to Steve Sampson in his letter of May 5, our public schools should teach Biblical principles, encouraging students to believe in God and accept Jesus as their personal savior. Such an approach, Mr. Sampson argues, would help reduce murder, rape, and robberies in our nation.
I am a product of public schools. My entire professional life has been deeply connected with public education as a teacher and in other roles at state and university levels.
Personally, I have strong political convictions, but when I enter the classroom as a public school teacher, administrators, colleagues, and parents would agree that I would be abusing my power if I would promote my political convictions in the classroom, where students are young and impressionable.
The same is true with regard to religion. Public school teachers as a whole respect the rights of students and their families to have their own religious convictions. They know that not all public school students are Christians and that among Christians beliefs are far from uniform. Hence, wise leaders like the Reverend Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson were right when they took strong stands favoring a separation of church and state. They understood that a blending of church and state would be harmful for both institutions.
The First and Fourteenth amendments of our Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court have ruled that public schools need to be neutral when it comes to religion. While it is possible - and indeed important - to teach about religion to help students understand our nation and world, it is not appropriate for public schools to favor one religion over others.
Public schools play a vital role in building a national culture where people of different backgrounds can meet and learn from each other how to work together to achieve common goals. Many of us in public schools have had friends of different faiths, as we do in adult life. That is part of what makes it so wonderful to be an American citizen.
Of course, some citizens like Mr. Sampson want schools that reinforce their own religious values and beliefs. The law of this land protects their right to send their children to parochial schools, many of which are of high quality. Teachers in such schools will not have the same constraints regarding the teaching of religion that public school teachers have.