Celebrating Religious Freedom Day
About the Guest
Did you know that each year the President of the United States declares January 16 to be Religious Freedom Day? Today on the broadcast, Eric Buehrer, founder of Gateways to Better Education, tells Dennis Rainey about this unusual and not-so-well-known holiday. Find out what you can do to celebrate your religious freedom in the home or the classroom.
Find out what you can do to celebrate your religious freedom in the home or the classroom.
Celebrating Religious Freedom Day
Eric: If you look around the world, one of the unique things about America is that we do have this wonderful freedom of religious expression in our country. And I think the day needs to be focused on the freedom we have to express our faith and shouldn't necessarily degenerate into an argument over whose faith is correct. I think this is something that can unify us as Americans, and that's what we should be emphasizing.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, January 2nd. Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We're going to hear today about an opportunity teachers have to reinforce religious freedom in our public school classrooms.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us. I don't know how many of our listeners know this, but you were a school teacher once, weren't you?
Dennis: I was.
Bob: For a day or two?
Dennis: It probably was the shortest stint ever had by a teacher.
Bob: Was it one day or two?
Dennis: One. One day I filled in in the midst of a teacher's strike and …
Bob: … taught eighth graders, as I remember.
Dennis: It was a great moment, because God, in His providential sense of humor, had me teach a class of English, which was the only class that I ever received a spanking in when I was in school – eighth grade English. The teacher bent me over, along with Vibah Blansett [ph] and broke a ruler on my behind, and I'm sure I deserved it. But there I stood, Bob, and I now understand why she spanked me. I would like to have used a ruler myself on that day.
Bob: On a few of those students?
Dennis: That's exactly right.
Bob: You had them do an assignment for you that day, though? They had to write an essay, right?
Dennis: They wrote an essay, and I asked them who their heroes were. And it was interesting – I kind of kept a tally throughout the day as I taught – I think it was four or five different classes of English all day long, and they really broke into three categories. One group of young people said that their grandparents or their mom and dads were their heroes; another third said that nobody was their hero, which really surprised me. I thought some of the great basketball players at that time – one of them was Michael Jordan. I thought Michael Jordan would be named, or some baseball player or politician, but they got a handful of votes. But the last third was what shocked me – a third said that their hero was me.
Bob: You, the teacher?
Dennis: No, that they were their own heroes. One-third of the class said that they didn't have anybody outside of their own personal lives, at the age of 14, who they looked up to. And so they had substituted themselves as the hero.
Bob: What triggered that story in my mind was a similar assignment that our guest heard about, where a student was asked to write a similar kind of essay, and the teacher – well, I'll let him tell the story. Eric Buehrer joins us on FamilyLife Today. Eric, welcome back to the program.
Eric: Thank you, good to be with you.
Bob: Eric heads an organization called "Gateways to Better Education." It's an organization that's designed to help parents know what can and can't happen in a public school classroom and to engage that classroom as a place where we can be salt and light, right?
Eric: That's right. You can teach about the Bible, you can teach all about Christianity, students can express themselves and their faith in the classroom.
Bob: But there was one student you heard about who was assigned the same assignment that Dennis gave, right?
Eric: That's right.
Bob: Write a story about your hero, and what happened?
Eric: Well, he chose Jesus as his hero, and the teacher said, "Pick another hero." And this, oftentimes, is the case. We have calls and letters come in from parents all over the country who find that many teachers and administrators do not understand what the law says about student religious expression. If a child wants to bring the Bible in to use as a show-and-tell item or to read during free reading time, oftentimes the teacher will say, "Oh, no, can't do that." A child will want to pray over their lunch, and oftentimes be corrected for doing that – "No, this is a public school." And this kind of discrimination and bias happens way too often.
The thing that's so frustrating about all this is that the U.S. Department of Education has issued clear guidelines on students' religious freedoms in the classroom; that they have the freedom to express their faith in their homework, their artwork, their oral presentations. They can bring their Bibles to school, they can pray, they can pray with friends, they can gather to study their Holy Scriptures, and teachers don't know it.
Dennis: I want you to help a parent who perhaps has had their son or daughter come back and say, "I can't tell a story from the Bible," "I can't take my Bible to school," "I can't write a paper about Jesus being my hero." Where should they begin in terms of engaging an administrator or a teacher regarding a problem like you've just described?
Eric: The first thing to do is make sure that you get the story straight. Make sure that what happened in the classroom is accurately described to you by the child. You don't want to go in half-cocked, assuming the teacher was hostile or in some way was rude to your child. Maybe it is accurate; most of the times it is, but you just want to make sure your story is straight.
Secondly, it's a simple solution – simply giving them the facts, and if people can download from our website, the U.S. Department of Education's guidelines on students' religious liberties, they are very clear, and we find, nine times out of 10, you give that to the teacher and just say, "You know, this incident came up with my son or my daughter, and I know that you are concerned about inappropriate things happening in the classroom, but let me just share with you what I found on the Internet that I think you'd find informative," and then just give them that. Teachers aren't particularly hostile to Christian faith, they are, frankly, just afraid of getting in trouble for allowing something to happen in their classroom that they think shouldn't happen.
Bob: And they've heard the same things on the news that we've heard about a student who got in trouble for this or for that or about the ACLU suing this school district over this, and they go home and think, "Well, I'm not sure what I can and can't do, so I'm going to take the path of least resistance. If I just don't do anything, I'll be safe," right?
Eric: That's right, and so they come down on the side of discriminating and bias – "I'd rather not have this happen in my classroom."
Bob: There is actually a day on the calendar coming up here in just a couple of days that is designed to promote religious freedom in public education, right?
Eric: That's right. Every year the president proclaims January 16th to be Religious Freedom Day. This is the anniversary of the passage of the Virginia legislature's statute on religious freedom back in the 1780s. Thomas Jefferson himself drafted this legislation, and it really …
Bob: The separation of church and state was Thomas Jefferson?
Eric: Yes, surprisingly so, that's what many think but, actually, he had a very articulate piece of legislation that dealt with the freedom of religion, and it's really the basis for the First Amendment, and so every year the president proclaims January 16th Religious Freedom Day on that anniversary to celebrate and acknowledge our religious freedom. The sad fact is most people have no idea that this presidential proclamation exists, and so what we're doing now on a national level is promoting this, and this year it falls on a Monday, and every year after this for the next five years, it's going to be during the school week.
Dennis: Okay, let's talk about what an individual parent can do, what a church can do, or what a teacher or administrator who is a Christian who listen to this broadcast can do in their own school.
Eric: Yes, and there are so many things they can do. A parent can, of course, inform their own children of their religious liberties. We had to do this with our kids. Our daughter was sharing about Jesus on the playground, and a supervisor, a parent supervisor, was on the playground and reprimanded her – said, "Oh, we can't talk about that here in a public school setting." So when she came home and told us this, the first person we taught was our own daughter. Yes, here is what you can say, here are the freedoms we have to communicate this, and then we contacted that supervisor to inform her.
Dennis: And so could your daughter talk about her own personal faith in Christ with another classmate during recess?
Eric: Absolutely. See, the government treats this as free speech. I have the freedom to speak to whomever I want to, whether it's a fellow classmate, whether it's the teacher, or whether it's my Maker. I am free to pray, I am free to witness, I am free to share my faith. It's a free speech issue as long as it's done in appropriate settings. You can't just blurt out in class something you can't just all of a sudden bow your head in prayer and start praying out loud if the teacher is trying to teach a lesson. So they treat it equally. They treat it as any other form of communication or conversation or expression. If it's appropriately done for the place and the setting, then it's acceptable.
Bob: So, again, if an individual wants to promote Religious Freedom Day at their school, how would you encourage them to go about doing that?
Eric: Okay, if they'll go to your website, you lead them to our website, they can get a whole page of all kinds of activities and resources they can use. We have the U.S. Department of Education's guidelines on students' religious liberties that comes right from the Department of Education on exactly what can happen in a public school; that they can talk about their faith in class; they can write about their faith in their homework or their school assignments; they can pray with their friends; they can pray individually; they can bring their Bibles and read their Bibles, and so forth. So they can get that and give it to the teacher.
I travel all over the country and speak, and I always ask the teachers, "Have you ever seen this document? Have you ever been given this document by your superintendent's office?" Never. This has not been distributed widely, even though the Department of Education, when they sent the guidelines to school superintendents asked them to distribute it widely in their school district with parents, teachers, administrators, and students. It never has been done.
So let's do this from the bottom up. They can also get a student version. We've boiled it down and put it in student language. They can give to their children. A youth pastor or a Sunday school teacher could give it out in their church. You ask what a church can do. Imagine if every child from kindergarten through 12th grade was given this information so that they all understand their religious freedom to express their faith if they so choose to in the classroom.
Dennis: And what if they had not only their own personal understanding of what their freedoms were but had a sheet of paper that that student could take and give to his or her teacher at school.
Eric: That's right. Make as copies – when you download this, make as many copies as you want and disseminate it as widely as you would like.
Bob: And you mentioned that our website, FamilyLife.com is linked to your website. Folks can go to our website, and they can get information on how to download these resources. You are aware of schools or school districts that have taken this day, January 16th, and said, "We're going to make something out of this."
Eric: That's right. In fact, let me tell you the story of what one mom did to bring religious freedom to 26,000 students. Wendy Kinnear, one day her heart was broken when her daughter, her first-grade daughter, Lauren, came home, and they were having a conversation about prayer, and Lauren just said in passing, "Well, of course, I can't pray at school, it's a public school." And she's in first grade. And Wendy was thinking, "How did my first-grader already get this message that she can't pray in a public school?" It broke her heart.
So she went and talked to the principal, and it turns out the principal was a believer and also was concerned that a student in her school would feel like she couldn't pray or express her faith in the classroom but wasn't sure what the legal parameters were for this. So we had her then go to the superintendent who also agreed with her. "Yes, this needs to be addressed. Why don't you go to the school board?" So Wendy calls me up and says, "Uh-oh, I've got to go speak to the school board. What do I do?" I said, "Just tell your story and then ask them if they would acknowledge Religious Freedom Day, since it was coming up that time of year, and let their schools know that they can acknowledge and celebrate this and let students know what their religious liberties are."
Well, the school board agreed, and so they sent a letter to every school administrator saying, "You have our permission, if you so desire, to acknowledge and celebrate Religious Freedom Day as the president is asking us to do in his proclamation." Well, that's all Wendy's principal needed. She gathered the faculty, and she said, "This week what I'd like you to do is read the president's proclamation, then talk about our nation's history of religious freedom, and then talk specifically to the students about their religious freedom in the classroom; that it's a safe place for them to express their faith, whatever their faith may be in this school and in this classroom."
And later I talked to the principal, and I talked to Wendy, and it was just a wonderful experience. They had, for instance, one, I remember, a Korean Christian child brought her Korean Bible in and shared with the class about her faith and how important it was to her, and this was a wonderful time for all the students, 700 students in that school, to understand what their religious freedoms were, and all the students across that district had the opportunity.
Bob: And, again, not all of them were Christians. There were people bringing emblems of their Jewish faith or of their whatever kind of faith their family practiced, right?
Eric: That's right. This is not exclusively a Christian holiday. This is about celebrating as Americans the religious freedom we have. But, of course, a lot of schools feel like it's okay to talk about other faiths because that's multicultural. Somehow, though, talking about Christianity is prohibited because of this supposed line of separation of church and state.
Bob: Well, I was going to ask you about that, because I've heard teachers or parents or others who have objected to prayers before athletic events or anything in the public school that would highlight Christianity – because of the idea that somehow it's going to make children who have a minority faith feel oppressed.
Eric: Well, I would imagine that a child who has a minority faith in America already understands that they are in the minority in America – 85 percent or so of Americans consider themselves Christian, but we all know they don't walk the talk but neither do all Muslims walk the talk or Hindus walk the talk. So definitely the dominant religious faith in America is Christianity.
It's important that we not make them feel somehow ashamed or that their faith is inappropriate to be expressed in a public school setting as well. It doesn't mean we have to accept their faith as truth, but we certainly want to honor and respect it. That's the whole point of religious freedom. We also have the religious freedom to form our student clubs on campus; to express our faith; to bring our Bibles and read them. We don't have the freedom to be hostile to somebody else's faith and somehow oppress and intimidate and bully them. We should never do that.
Bob: But, you know, some are going to say just by showing that they're in the minority, when you're in the second grade, when you're in junior high, you realize that you're an outcast just by drawing attention to it.
Dennis: We don't want them to feel bad.
Bob: You are making this poor young man, this poor woman feel bad about themselves and about their faith.
Eric: Schools should be in the business of affirming a child's faith. So if that Hindu child gets up and wants to talk about what's important to them in their faith, the teacher's responsibility should be to affirm that family's religious belief; to say, "Hey, that's great, I appreciate your sharing that." That's the kind of tone that should happen in a classroom.
Dennis: You know, as we're talking about this, my mind goes back to more than a dead ago when the Iron Curtain fell in the former Soviet Union, and one of the first and most effective means of evangelism that occurred in the former Soviet Union was in the classroom. The Jesus film was taken over in mass quantities to public educators of schools in classroom after classroom in Moscow and St. Petersburg and cities throughout that great nation, and Americans marveled that we didn't have the same religious freedoms in the United States, which had been founded by people who were looking for religious freedoms.
And here we have, what I believe is a set to a spike on January 16. Now, think about it for a moment – here is a day, a Monday, beginning of a school week, where Christians who have complained that what is taking place in your public school has not been right; it's been anti-God. You have the opportunity today to make a positive statement and be an influence for good and for God and for religious freedom in your school. But you have to take advantage of it.
Eric: Imagine if every child went to school that day with a Bible tucked in their backpack and a copy of their religious freedoms as outlined by the Department of Education, and we've got them summarized in a student version, and they could put their Bible out on their desk, they can read it during recess or lunch, anytime there's a free reading opportunity, they can have it there. And if somebody questions them on it, simply pull out a copy of that and give it to them. In fact, instead of just taking one copy of those guidelines, take 20 copies of those guidelines and give them to your friends, because that's part of your religious freedom, too – to distribute literature about your faith.
Dennis: I just think it's a great idea for a student to stick a copy of the Bible in their backpack. I just like the way that feels.
Bob: Have one with your wherever.
Dennis: Well, and to set it out on your desk. I mean, if it's only 5 percent of the class that had Bibles on their desks, what a great statement. And, frankly, again, not to go thumping people on top of the head with your Bible …
Eric: Not at all.
Dennis: But to be winsome and yet to be the salt and light where it needs to go, and that's out in the midst of a secular culture that, if there's ever been a time for us to be wise about our faith, it's today.
Eric: And also to have the openness to be able to say and if that Hindu child, that Muslim child, that Buddhist child wants to also bring their Holy Scripture and have it on their desk, that we would say, "You know, that's the great thing about being in America, that we have this religious freedom." That's the kind of tone and attitude that we have to make sure that we have in our schools. Otherwise, it will be looked at as, "Oh, those Christians just want rights for themselves but not for others."
Dennis: What would you say to your son or daughter in how they ought to relate to, let's say, a person of Hindu faith who brought their Scriptures to the class?
Eric: I would encourage them to be curious about it. I wouldn't have any fear that my child would be converting to Hinduism because they took a look at the Hindu Scriptures or that they talked to a Hindu child about their faith. I think it would be an interesting experience for them, and it would probably open up questions they would have for me that I could then discuss with them as their father about why Christianity is so important.
Bob: But, you know, one of the things that presents a problem for us with Christianity is that we are in a fairly exclusive religion. We say to folks …
Dennis: … fairly exclusive?
Bob: Well, Jesus said, "There is no way to the Father but by me," and so when we present that claim in a public school classroom, it's authentic, it's true, it's historically accurate.
Dennis: And it does exclude.
Bob: But it also says that there are some kids in the class who aren't going to find favor with God because they are practicing the wrong religion.
Eric: And I think the day needs to be focused on the freedom we have to express our faith. It shouldn't necessarily degenerate into an argument over whose faith is correct. I think this is something that can unify us as Americans, to say one of the unique things in the world – and you look around the world, one of the unique things about America is that we do have this wonderful freedom of religious expression in our country, and that's what this focus should be on. That's what we should be emphasizing.
Dennis: And if your son or daughter is going to ask questions about the Islamic faith, I'd rather they ask those questions while they're at home when they're younger, when I could provide an appropriate answer. And there is a great book that I'd recommend for any parent who doesn't feel qualified to compare Christianity with the other world religions. It's called "So What's the Difference?" by Fritz Ridenour. Now, this book was around when I was a college student.
Bob: Yeah, I'm just wondering if this is still in print.
Dennis: Oh, it is. I talked to Fritz the other day. It still is in print, and, I'll tell you, the thing that makes the book so effective is that it really gives a layman just a very simple comparison of what that faith believes about Jesus, about the Bible, about sin, about how you get eternal life, and it equips you to be able to engage your son or daughter around another faith that isn't Christianity and to do it intelligently.
Bob: Yeah, I was just kidding about it being out of print, because I know we have it in our FamilyLife Resource Center. If our listeners are interested in getting a copy, it is an excellent resource to compare the differences in major world religions, and it would be the kind of book that could be used, I would think, as a part of our Religious Freedom Day. It ought to be something that a teacher could look at, and I think it accurately represents the different views of different world religions.
If you're interested in a copy, go to our website, FamilyLife.com, and click the "Go" button at the bottom of the screen, and that will take you right to a page where you can get more information about the book, "So What's the Difference?" and we also have copies of a booklet that our guest today, Eric Buehrer has written, on different ways that parents can express God's love in a public school environment – ways to be a godly influence in your child's school and classroom. Information about that book is on our website as well, along with a link to Eric's website where you can get more information about celebrating Religious Freedom Day.
Again, our site is FamilyLife.com or if you'd prefer to call us at 1-800-FLTODAY, someone on our team can get you more information about the resources that we have available or how you can get more information on Religious Freedom Day.
You know, as most of us are kind of getting back in the swing of things after the holiday season, it would be important for us to take just a minute here, Dennis, and say a word of thanks to the many folks who we heard from at the end of 2005. In those last few days of the year, we had many of our listeners who contacted us either online or by phone and made a contribution to the ministry of FamilyLife Today. I know some of our listeners were wondering if we were able to meet our matching gift. You know, we had the matching gift in December, and as soon as our team has all of the data, we're going to post that information on our website. So those who want to know can go to FamilyLife.com for more information.
Thanks again for your support of this ministry throughout the year, and we're looking forward to working together to effectively develop godly families in 2006. Dennis?
Dennis: It's been our privilege today to have Eric Buehrer with us. Eric, I appreciate your work with schools and equipping moms and dads and students and administrators and teachers to understand what their religious freedoms are, and I want to encourage our listeners to pray for Eric and his ministry around January 16th; that this might pick up momentum over the next five years, because for five years in a row, January 16 is going to be on a Monday, a Tuesday, a Wednesday, a Thursday, and a Friday.
Bob: Have you calculated Leap Year into that? Have you checked all that out? I'm just wanting to make sure. Leap Year could turn the whole thing – some folks are going to their computer right now to check that out.
Dennis: And we'll get letters if we're not right. Eric, thanks for being on the broadcast.
Eric: Thank you.
Bob: FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.
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