Dale Haferty teaches shop class in the small town of Guthrie Center, Iowa. He self-identifies as a Christian, likely as his father also was. One of his students is a practicing Wiccan, as his father also is. (Thus we see how religious identification of all stripes passes through family influence regardless of the religion’s local popularity.) The student wanted to build a Wiccan altar in shop class, and Mr. Haferty said, “No.” More accurately, he said the student could build a table that might later be used as a part of the altar, but could not build the entire altar with its religious symbols.
Looked at through one lens, this looks a little bit like a Christian teacher discriminating against a non-Christian student. “This kid was practicing his religion during class time, and I don’t agree,” Haferty is quoted as saying, and he also gave this to the Des Moines Register: “This witchcraft stuff – it’s terrible for our kids. It takes kids away from what they know, and leads them to a dark and violent life. We spend millions of tax dollars trying to save kids from that.”
But not so fast. Haferty also says that his policy was “I don’t want any religious symbols in the shop,” he said. He thinks he was enforcing, not attacking, the separation of church and state. He says that he would not allow a Christian student to build a cross in the shop class, either. That, in his mind, was being even-handed and an appropriate sort of policy. We can’t outright dismiss him as thoughtless, bigoted, or unprincipled. Certainly not unprincipled. He tried, in good faith, to do what he thought was the right thing.
Haferty’s problem is that he focuses only on the Establishment Clause. If I’m reading between the lines correctly, Haferty is not only a Christian but very much a Christian, someone who thinks that as a public school teacher he ought to be able to lead his students in sectarian Christian prayer, someone who thinks that the laws are trampling on his rights to be a Christian by prohibiting him from evangelizing in the classroom and that the Constitution is being grossly mishandled by liberal judges with wild-eyed and savage intent to drive God out of the public square.
Now, I’m willing to give Haferty a pass on thinking Wicca is violent — it isn’t, any more than Christianity, Judaism, or any other religion. (We can discuss Santeria some other time.) Haferty may well be simply ignorant about Wicca and due to his own religious outlook on life may not care to educate himself about this other religion that he probably really thinks is more weird than dangerous. But I lose some sympathy for the guy when he justifies his technically-incorrect but good-faith-seeming policy with this: “We as Christians don’t get to have our say during school time, so why should he [the Wiccan student]?” So while I do think he tried to do what he thought was the right thing, this reveals a degree of bias undercutting what are otherwise at least good intentions. (The reporter may have tried to goad him a little bit, too.)
Problem is, there is also a Free Exercise Clause, which applies to Christians and Wiccans equally. Which means that there can be a Bible study club or a “flagpole group” or a Christian Students Society. They have to have access to school facilities on the same terms and conditions as other student groups like the chess club, football team, or the student government. The school can’t require the students to engage in prayer, but at the same time the school can’t stop a student from praying, either. The school can stop a teacher from praying (during class time or in view of the students) because the teacher is an authority figure and that is an Establishment. But the school can allow a teacher to lead the class in the theist-friendly Modified Pledge Of Allegiance.
So Christians do get to use school facilities and school time. A student can discuss religious experiences in a classroom assignment and should not be graded down for it. For instance, if a student participates in an activity with her church, there is nothing wrong with her writing about it in an appropriate essay assignment. She should neither be given a boost to her grade nor a penalty to her grade based on her choice of subject matter, assuming the essay meets other criteria for the assignment. Her subject matter can be disregarded in place of an analysis of her grammar and spelling skills.
Similarly, Haferty can allow students to make crosses, crucifixes (the difference is a crucifix has an image of the tortured-to-death Jesus on it), and other objets d’art which are overtly religious. He cannot assign those things as projects, but if a student independently wants to do them, he can permit them. The cross has to meet the criteria for the assigned project — for instance, a cross is an ideal sort of project for teaching students how to make and join miter-cuts, and he can grade the project based on the skill with which the miter cuts are made and joined; are there gaps between the elements, do the pieces fit together as per the project plan? Those are non-religious grading criteria analogous to the essay about a church activity being graded on its sentence structure, spelling, and grammar.
I can’t condemn Haferty. The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause can seem to be at loggerheads sometimes. An easy, bright-line rule like “no religion in schools, period” is something people hope for but which the Constitution does not provide. The law is more subtle than that. It’s easy to get lost in those subtleties and nuances, particularly when you haven’t been trained in them and the study of those nuances is not your own academic discipline. Haferty has probably been consuming too much Christian agitprop, railing against the Establishment Clause, and has got a skewed view of the way things are.
It’s unfortunate that what was probably a good-faith misunderstanding on his part, coupled with some stubbornness on his student’s part, resulted in a breakdown of a teacher-student relationship and ultimately a well-intentioned teacher being suspended for doing what he thought was the right thing. And now the ACLU is looking in to taking action against the school, which will only further polarize opinions and feelings and no one will benefit from that.
What ought to happen is the school district and the ACLU should work together. The ACLU should volunteer one of its attorneys to come out and teach an in-service continuing education class for the teachers, explaining what is the appropriate balance for teachers to strike between not endorsing any religion and allowing students to freely exercise their own world views. When you “get it,” it stops being a balancing act and starts being a source of pleasure to see in action. And it isn’t hostility to religion at all — it’s a dynamic example of Constitutional freedom.