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Linda Allewalt: Kentucky legalizes school evangelizing

Linda Allewalt

This column first appeared in the Lexington Herald Leader on March 16 and is updated and reprinted with permission.

By Linda Allewalt

On March 24, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear signed into law legislation that prohibits a school district from punishing an employee for engaging in private religious expression.

The law is intended to expand public school teachers’ rights to share their religious beliefs with students and other staff. According to an article on Kentucky Today, “Public school employees would also be allowed to sponsor student religious clubs or organizations, plan religious events, wear religious clothing, symbols or jewelry. They would also be permitted to decorate their desks or other personal spaces with personal items that reflect their religious beliefs.” 

State Rep. Chris Fugate, who sponsored the bill, stated, “This is a piece of legislation that hopefully will embolden those Christian teachers who are not ashamed of their faith, but sometimes out of fear do not say anything about their faith or hold prayer meetings with other teachers.”

I worked for many years in public school classrooms as a teacher’s aide and as a substitute teacher. I am very familiar with the environment of a classroom and how the teachers and children interact. The very best teachers are the ones who make their classroom feel like a comfortable space and where all the students feel as though they are equal and valued in that little community they share daily. 

The Supreme Court rulings in 1962 and 1963 that people refer to as the point at which “God was kicked out of the schools” came up because children were being exposed to daily Christian-based prayers and the Christian bible in the classroom. This led to students of other faiths (and no faith) to feel like outsiders every day in their school.

I am also an atheist. When I first read about this legislation and considered the fact that atheism is also protected speech under the First Amendment, I imagined what it would be like if I was once again running a classroom under this law. I could imagine wearing my Freedom From Religion Foundation shirt that says, “Unabashed Atheist: Not Afraid of Burning in Hell.” I could wear my nice big “A” atheist necklace. I could put a copy of Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great on my desk next to my pencil holder. I could put up a little sign with one of my favorite quotes on it by Chapman Cohen, “Gods are fragile things. They may be killed by a whiff of science or a dose of common sense.” 

I could go on with this idea, but I think you get my drift. I wouldn’t do any of this, even if the law said I could. Why? Because it’s wrong, both morally and ethically, and violates everything I ever learned about the role of the teacher in a classroom of children. It is also wrong to harangue the people you work with every day with proselytizing pamphlets and out-loud vocal prayers. 

When a teacher is more invested in pushing their religious rights than they are creating an equal community, void of divisiveness, with the staff in the building and all the children in their classrooms, they don’t belong in the profession. They are taking advantage of the captive audience of children for their own purposes. It’s beyond reprehensible. 

Let’s call this legislation for what it is: A blatant attempt by many Christians to use the public schools to proselytize and evangelize. If it actually had anything to do with First Amendment rights, it would focus on the individual children sitting in those classrooms and their rights to be free from religious or political coercion.

FFRF Member Linda Allewalt is a retired educator from Shelbyville.