Finn Laursen believes millions of American children are no longer learning right from wrong, in part because public schools have been stripped of religion. To repair that frayed moral fabric, Laursen and his colleagues want to bring the light of Jesus Christ into public school classrooms across the country — and they are training teachers to do just that.
The Christian Educators Association International, an organization that sees the nation’s public schools as “the largest single mission field in America,” aims to show Christian teachers how to live their faith — and evangelize in public schools — without running afoul of the Constitution’s prohibition on the government establishing or promoting any particular religion.
“We’re not talking about proselytizing. That would be illegal,” said Laursen, the group’s executive director. “But we’re saying you can do a lot of things. . . . It’s a mission field that you fish in differently.”
Not everyone agrees that it’s acceptable for teachers to “fish” in public schools, where government officials are not allowed to promote or endorse any particular faith.
The nation has been fighting over the role of religion in public education for more than a century, and in helping public school teachers understand — and push toward — the legal boundaries of expression, Laursen and his colleagues are wading into one of the most fraught issues in American life.
Some advocates say the organization urges teachers to invite Christianity into the classroom in ways that might be unconstitutional and that are bound to make some children — and their parents — uncomfortable.
“They appear to be encouraging teachers to cross the line,” said Daniel Mach of the American Civil Liberties Union, which fought the Christian Educators Association in a 2009 court case over Florida teachers’ religious expression at school. “Decisions about the religious upbringing of children should be left in the hands of parents and families, not public school officials.”
Others say that there would be outrage if teachers of any other faith were being encouraged to express their beliefs in the classroom, legally or otherwise — particularly at a time when anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise and some parents have complained that academic lessons about Islam can amount to religious indoctrination.
“What this really amounts to is a privileging of the majority,” said Katherine Stewart, a journalist whose questions about Christianity in her children’s public school led her to write a 2012 book, “The Good News Club,” about evangelical Christians’ efforts to reach students in school. “If a Wiccan, Muslim or Satanist public school teacher were to try to put their sacred texts on their desk . . . they would likely be shut down.”
Laursen said he believes teachers of every faith have — and deserve — the same constitutional protections as Christian teachers when it comes to expressing religion at school.
He and some other Christian educators say the culture in many public schools feels particularly hostile to Christianity compared with other religions, making it intimidating to admit a relationship with Jesus. And they say that by explaining the law in concrete terms, the Christian Educators Association has empowered them to express their faith with new boldness.
The organization is a nonprofit with broad goals that include supporting Christian teachers and “transforming public schools through God’s love and truth.” It is a professional association that serves as an alternative to traditional teachers unions, offering its approximately 6,000 members liability insurance and other benefits.
Although the Christian Educators Association is small, it is at the center of a pending Supreme Court case that has the potential to substantially weaken public sector unions in more than two dozen states. The association is a plaintiff in the case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which challenges the right of teachers unions to collect dues from nonmembers.
The other plaintiffs are 10 individual teachers, eight of whom are members of the association; they argue that they should not be forced to support a union that uses their dues to promote policies — and politicians — with which they fundamentally disagree.
The association, founded in 1953, also publishes a journal, produces a podcast and organizes prayer groups. It began its training program six years ago, and since then hundreds of teachers across the country have participated.
During weekend-long seminars in hotel conference rooms, the group teaches teachers that they have a right to pray with colleagues during breaks or at lunchtime. They may lead before- and after-school religious clubs for students. They can honestly answer students’ questions about their beliefs, and they may even pray with students outside work hours.
Teachers are told it’s okay to keep a Bible on their desk and teach about it in class, so long as it fits within the curriculum. And they are urged to witness for Jesus by acting in a godly manner, in part so that others might be provoked to wonder — and ask — why they have so much kindness and compassion.
If bringing nonbelievers to Jesus can be compared to growing crops, then “the part that a teacher in public school can do is till the soil and plant the seed,” said Laursen, a former teacher, principal and superintendent. “Very often, they’re not personally involved in the harvest.”
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