A teacher in Florida was suspended without pay after grabbing a fourth grade boy's hand, placing it over his heart, and forcing him to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. No one flinched when this happened in my Catholic grade school, but the problem in this case is that she taught at a public school and the boy is a Jehovah's Witness. The child, who respectfully stood up with the rest of his classmates, explained to his teacher that his faith prevents him from worshipping objects, but she reportedly insisted that he was an American and expected to salute the flag.
I was born and raised in America, am proud to be American, and have no issues with the word "God" or the fact that it was added to the Pledge in 1954 and, like it or not, has taken on a message that is as religious as it is patriotic. But, from a parent's point of view, public schools do not have the right to impose values that contradict my family's religious beliefs. Plain and simple.
I am open to the possibility that this teacher wasn't fully aware of her student's religious beliefs. Public school teachers, especially those in urban areas, are exposed to children from a variety of religious backgrounds and it's irrational to expect them to have a solid understanding of every one of them. As a parent, I would have met with this teacher early on in the year to explain that certain celebrations or school rituals were against our family's faith.
But let's assume that happened. From that point on, the student's right to not say the Pledge, but to either sit or stand respectfully while others practiced their right to say it, is perfectly acceptable. And let's take things even further, shall we? If a public school plans to teach sex ed or evolution or any other subject that we know is controversial for families of certain faiths, parents have the right to be forewarned and then to decide whether they think their children should be allowed to participate or sit out.
Freedom of religion trumps the freedom schools have to teach certain subjects. The purpose of public education is to prepare students for citizenship, help them become critical thinkers, and train them to compete in a global marketplace. Its purpose is not to force certain beliefs down their throats. And if you want to make the argument that this teacher was helping her student become better citizens by forcing the Pledge on him, well, I would argue that the compassion he showed by standing and his ability to respect the rights of his peers prove this child has the makings of a pretty decent citizen.
Do you think parents have the right to keep their kids from performing certain rituals or learning subjects because of their religious beliefs?
Image via Ann Oro/Flickr