Students need to understand teachers' freedom to teach about religion

By Nixie Laremore Teachers aren’t the only ones who have erroneous thinking about the so-called “separation of church and state;” many students, too, think that classrooms must be “religion-free zones.”      

When I was assigned to substitute-teach a high school American Literature class, the students were reading Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Finally, I would be able to really teach a class and not just babysit in the teacher’s absence! Previously, I taught American Literature and The Scarlet Letter at a Christian school in Pennsylvania. Hawthorne’s compelling portrayals of poisonous hidden guilt and revenge as compared to rejuvenating open confession and forgiveness were still vivid in my mind. Although I was now substituting in public schools, I knew I could and would discuss these overtly religious themes of the book during class. I knew I could because any topic inherent in literature- however controversial- may be objectively discussed. I knew I would because to intentionally NOT discuss such valuable life topics would be a huge disservice to the students and would be rooted only in fear. I wasn’t afraid. Besides, I couldn’t imagine getting any pushback from the students or the faculty. As a substitute, I would be lucky if anyone paid any attention at all to what I said in the classroom.  

After a quick review, I mentioned that Hawthorne’s writings contained many references to the Bible. Specifically, I told the class I wanted to explore the many alleged similarities between Hester in The Scarlet Letter and Queen Esther in the Bible. “First, notice how their names sound similar!  Are there other similarities perhaps Hawthorne wanted us to notice?  Does anyone in the class know the story of Esther from the Bible to help us start comparing the two?” I asked. Immediately, a young man in the middle of the classroom raised his hand. “You do know this is a public school, right? Maybe because you’re a substitute you don’t know this, but I am pretty sure you are not allowed to be talking about the Bible in a public school classroom.”

“Your assumption that talking about the Bible is not allowed in public schools is very common, but it is also very wrong. You are mistaken,” I responded. “The facts are that teachers and students may talk about the Bible in any classroom, especially when the Bible is connected to the study at hand…like in our study of The Scarlet Letter.” Have you checked your facts regarding academic and religious freedom in public schools? Are you confident when teaching about the Bible, or are you silently obeying assumed restrictions? 

Not only is the Bible an appropriate part of the study of literature, but the Bible is also appropriate in the study of art, music, science, government, history, language, and culture. You are free to objectively teach about how the Bible intersects with these disciplines, and in most cases, your state’s academic standards direct you to do so.

Nixie Laremore conducts professional development seminars around the country for Gateways to Better Education .

For more help on this topic visit:

The Free Speech and Academic Freedom of Teachers in Public Schools

Teachers’ Rights on Public School Campuses

FAQ’s Regarding Religious Freedom in Public Schools

Graduation Prayers in Public Schools

Sample Board Policy re: Religious Expression in Public Schools