Why Johnny Can’t Read Genesis

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken March 8, 1998

True or false? Students who attend public school may express their Christian faith in the classroom.

According to the school district in Medford, New Jersey, the answer is “false.” What happened was this. As a reward for doing good work, a first-grader named Zachariah Hood was given the opportunity to choose a book to read aloud to his classmates. He decided to take his Beginner’s Bible to school and read the story of Jacob and Esau.

Zachariah’s teacher, who was worried about violating the principle of the “separation of church and state,” did not allow him to read to the class. When Hood’s parents complained, the principal of the school sniffily told them that they didn’t “appear to be public school material.”

Eventually, a federal case was made out of it. Several months ago a judge ruled against the Hoods and in favor of the school district. His reasoning was vague, but he seemed to think that allowing Zach to read about Jacob and Esau might make impressionable first-graders think the school district endorses Christianity. Lest anyone think otherwise, the Medford school district does not endorse religion at all [details come from the Philadelphia Inquirer, 2/13/98].

I doubt that reading Jacob and Esau from The Beginner’s Bible would lead many first-graders to Christ, but what happened in Medford is still distressing. It shows how paranoid some Americans have become about Christianity. Recent political campaigns and Supreme Court decisions have left some people with the impression that religion must be actively excluded from public life. Some educators, especially, seem bound and determined to ensure that American children remain ignorant about biblical truth.

The decision to outlaw stories like Jacob and Esau makes for bad education. One wonders what Zachariah’s classmates must have thought of him and his terrible book. Yet knowledge of the Bible is essential to a basic education. It is impossible to understand Western art, history, music, literature or philosophy without having a fair knowledge of the content of the Bible.

The court decision in the school district’s favor makes for bad law as well as bad education. The First Amendment was intended to preserve religious freedom, not to restrict it. The purpose of forbidding the establishment of religion was to prevent the federal government from making everyone become an Anglican.

The men who wrote the Constitution were not trying to guarantee that American children would become biblically illiterate. No doubt they would be horrified at the way their intentions have been abused. Indeed, there is some reason to hope that the Supreme Court will overrule the Medford decision.

It is important for Christians who are involved in public schooling to know their constitutional rights. Individual students are allowed to carry their Bibles and to pray. They are permitted to wear and display Christian symbols and to talk about their Christian beliefs.

Students also are able to write papers, give speeches and create art projects which contain Christian themes. In 1995 President Clinton released helpful national guidelines for exercising religious freedom in the public school. Among other things, the guidelines allow students to “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.”

I saw evidence that these guidelines were being followed when I visited Greenfield School in Center City Philadelphia. One of the bulletin boards featured a report on San Francisco Giants’ pitcher Dave Dravecky. The student who wrote the report explained the role that Dravecky’s Christian faith had in his comeback from arm surgery. (The teacher criticized the paper, but not for its religious content: “You forget to mention that Dravecky’s arm had to be amputated!”)

On their own initiative, student groups may also meet for Bible study or prayer. These rights were confirmed by the legal decision in Westside Community Board of Education v. Mergens. The Supreme Court ruled that secondary schools which allow clubs to meet on campus must also allow student-led Bible clubs to meet. A Bible club must be given the same recognition as the chess club or the 4-H club, including a place to meet and permission to advertise.

In short, public school students are full-fledged citizens of the United States of America. As such, they are entitled to freedom of religion. They are not required to leave their religious convictions at the gate to the schoolyard. A number of young people from Tenth take advantage of this freedom. Several high school students and at least one elementary school student are involved in prayer meetings or Bible studies.

The public school campus is one place where Christians sometimes end up as sheep among the wolves. Therefore, it is one place where they must be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16). Christians must resist the temptation to let the law of the land overrule their faith. They must stand up for what is right. At the same time, Christians in the public school community must not to be obnoxious about their faith, or create unnecessary conflict.

A good model to follow is the prophet Daniel, who attended that most pagan of ancient academies: Nebuchadnezzar’s finishing school in Babylon. Daniel was tempted to compromise his faith several times. Yet he did not allow Babylonian law to make him worship idols (ch. 1) or to keep him out of his prayer closet (ch. 6).

Daniel did not try to make a nuisance of himself, either. He lived the kind of life described in 1 Timothy 2:2: a peaceful life in all quietness and godliness. He simply practiced his faith the way he always had, taking advantage of every opportunity to testify to God’s grace. That is the way Christians should behave in the Medford school district and everywhere else.

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