A Cross in the Classroom?

June 20, 1994

The story of Brian McConnell, the Marley Middle School student who wasn't allowed to complete a wooden cross in shop class, shows why some educators need a lesson in common sense.

Brian wanted to make a cross for his grandmother's grave as an ungraded extra project. His teacher told him he could cut and prepare the wood in class, but couldn't assemble the pieces because crosses are religious symbols. Anne Arundel County schoolofficials agreed; allowing a student to make a cross in class would violate the constitutional rule separating church and state. At the very least, they said, the area is gray enough to warrant caution.

Except that it isn't -- not if one understands what church/state separation really means. What the Constitution prohibits is the promotion of religious beliefs in public schools and compulsory instruction designed to steer students along a certain religious course. An English teacher who injects his Christian beliefs into a Bible-as-Literature course; a social studies curriculum that casts African and Indian cultures as pagan; an art teacher who assigns students to make crosses for their grandmother's graves -- these are the kinds of religious influences the Constitution forbids.

It does not demand that schools pretend that religion does not exist, that the Reformation be taught without mentioning Martin Luther's objections to Catholic doctrines or that a course on the Middle East ignore the tenets of Islam.

Nor does it bar students from drawing voluntarily on their own spiritual experiences and feelings as fodder for classwork. A child doesn't violate church/state separation if, assigned to write an essay on his plans for the summer, he writes about going to vacation Bible school. This is true whether the assignment is graded or ungraded, like Brian's -- though the fact that his cross was a project he pursued apart from the curriculum makes the schools' paranoia especially ridiculous.

Being overcautious is not the way for schools to avoid conflicts between church and state. Barring kids from writing poems about God or reading religious books during study hall not only stifles freedom of expression, it makes the schools look stupid. They need to learn what is and is not a conflict. Sometimes that can be tricky. In Brian McConnell's case, it should have been obvious.

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