Recently a 10-year-old Memphis student had a class assignment rejected when she chose God as her idol. The teacher refused to allow the paper to even remain in the classroom, requiring the student to take it from the building. Since, the teacher, principal and school district have all apologized and the assignment has been accepted. But why did the teacher reject the paper to begin with? Was this teacher, as many others often do, confusing "separation of church and state” with an inability to ever speak about God?

When Lucy Elementary student Erin Shead was asked to write about someone she idolized or looked up to, she didn't choose a Kardashian or Miley Cyrus — she chose God. "God is my Idol I will never hate him. He will always be the #1 person I look up to." Erin's paper on God was not just rejected by her teacher, but banned from the classroom. Erin was instructed to take her picture home and pick a new subject. When Erin's mother questioned both the teacher and the principal, she was told "the children started talking and some didn't believe in God and some did and they were talking about it. She (the teacher) did admit that she didn't know how to handle that situation."

The fact this teacher told Erin she couldn't write about God, that God couldn't be her idol, is wrong. It's not wrong because God belongs in schools — that is another debate entirely. It's wrong because you can't ban a student from writing about God. Even worse, the teacher didn't know what to do when confronted with a church versus state dilemma and instead acted on her first impulse — to ban God. Teachers should understand what "separation of church and state" means and how to apply it.

Not freedom from, freedom of

Our American ancestors came to the new world looking for freedom of religion — that is, to practice freely without an official state church.

To understand what separation of church and state means, you must first understand the context of how it came into our lexicon as Americans. Generally speaking, the Pilgrims fled England because they weren't allowed to practice openly the religion they wanted. The Church of England was the law of the land, and you could be fined or arrested for practicing anything different. Our American ancestors came to the new world looking for freedom of religion — that is, to practice freely without an official state church. Later, when our founding fathers crafted the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment (among other things) addressed this need for religious freedom from the state. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Choosing to begin the Bill of Rights with this shows the importance placed upon it.

Thomas Jefferson eloquently reiterated this point in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, writing: "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God... I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State" (emphasis added). And lo and behold, the phrase "separation of church and state" was born.

Those who educate must be educated

Over time, the simple phrase "separation of church and state" has been abused and misused. It gets thrown around as a way to keep religion from being even remotely associated with the government — to include appearing in public schools. But looking at our history as a country, it's quite clear that was never the intent of the phrase. Our forefathers left their homeland to start over specifically so they could practice what they wanted, when they wanted. They left for freedom from forced religion, for the ability to choose what God — if any — they prayed to. They didn't flee so religion could only be practiced within the privacy of home. If anything, that's what they fled from.

They need to understand there is a difference between promoting religion and allowing expression of religion, between leading class in prayer and allowing a student to pray, between assigning a student to discuss why God is their idol and accepting an assignment where a student says they idolize God.

Granted, it's a tricky situation when God comes up in school. Young minds are impressionable and religion is a very personal subject. But that is why this is an area where our educators need to be educated. They need to understand there is a difference between promoting religion and allowing expression of religion, between leading class in prayer and allowing a student to pray, between assigning a student to discuss why God is their idol and accepting an assignment where a student says they idolize God.

Long-term impact

"God will always make me do the right thing. He will help me be the best that I can be." Erin's words show the positive impact her faith has had in her life so far. But how did her 10-year-old mind interpret this experience? When asked how she felt when told she couldn't write about God, Erin's response was "it made me feel sad." Simple words for a complex situation. How will this event impact her faith formation in the years to come? Will it turn her away from God or more toward Him? What about the other children in the class, ones who may not have a firm belief one way or the other? What did they take away from the refusal to accept Erin's idol as God? Didn't the denial of Erin's paper on God teach them far more about God's place in society than if the paper had just been quietly accepted?

When we as a society begin to discourage any positive influences our children have, we are heading down a destructive path to be sure. We live in a time where our kids are bombarded daily with information and choices, we shouldn't be confusing them further with even the subconscious implication that God is bad. Regardless of what you call your spiritual host, most (not all) would agree that belief in something is worthwhile. In this instance, Erin was taught her belief was something to hide.

A teachable moment

This was a regrettable misunderstanding, and we as educators have learned from it.

Erin's teacher should have known better. She should have been taught better so she could teach better. Ultimately, the paper was accepted and apologies were issued from the teacher, principal and school system. Thankfully the school system's official statement included the following: "This was a regrettable misunderstanding, and we as educators have learned from it." Hopefully going forward this teachable moment will educate others on the limitations of "separation of church and state," and save students like Erin from the "regrettable misunderstanding" which caused her First Amendment right to be denied.

More on religion and spirituality

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Why I reject the church cry room
How I'm raising a spiritual child without religion

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