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Teacher’s ‘God isn’t real’ assignment has parents up in arms

After giving students the controversial assignment to determine if God was real, a Texas middle school teacher wasn’t prepared for the backlash she would receive. It wasn’t the subject matter of the assignment that was the problem — it was how the teacher graded the students’ responses.

In a five-minute recorded statement that 12-year-old Jordan Wooley submitted to the Katy school board, the seventh-grader explained that her teacher asked the class to distinguish between opinion, fact and commonplace assertion. Wooley, a West Memorial Junior High student, responded to the statement “There is a God” by saying that it’s both a “factual claim” and an “opinion,” only to have the teacher tell her she was wrong. The girl said that when she tried to debate with her teacher, with evidence from Bible stories and accounts of people who had died and returned from heaven, the disagreement turned into a heated classroom argument.

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Katy ISD has since released a statement of apology, saying the “ill-conceived” classroom activity would be taken out of the curriculum. The school board’s apology also implied that the teacher was of a Christian faith.

As you might expect, this middle school muck-up is turning into an Internet battle of good and evil. On one side of the argument, we have supporters who think this teacher was doing the kid a favor. Commenters have explained that it is a teacher’s job to present fact and teach that God is a myth since there is no scientific proof of His existence; a belief is not a fact. In response, a growing number of religious commenters have taken up Wooley’s cause, championing the preteen’s right to express her religious freedom at school.

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As juicy as this debate is shaping up to be, the real problem with the class assignment is much simpler than that. Sad to say, Wooley isn’t having her Joan of Arc moment. She is being treated unfairly by a person in a position of authority who should have been trained to respect a student’s beliefs even when they don’t agree.

Just a few weeks ago, we saw a similar Internet explosion over another school-related religious issue, but in that case, it was on the other side of the fence. A Georgia school was sued and forced to settle when two elementary school teachers took it upon themselves to browbeat their students into praying. Nonbelieving students were singled out because of their “lack of” belief.

And now we see the same shakedown in Texas, where a teacher overstepped the bounds of a thought-provoking classroom assignment and turned it into a battle of wills. But remember, this isn’t an issue of religious right — because we have seen it play out on both sides. This is an issue of fairness. If we get angry about children who are forced to pray against their will in class, then we should also get angry about children who are forced by their teachers to deny God.

While many parents are pushing to get religion out of school, it doesn’t change the fact that a student who believes in God deserves just as much respect as a student who doesn’t. Church and state guidelines from the Freedom from Religion Foundation and information about students’ religious rights from the Alliance Defending Freedom can help us make this important distinction.

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There are a few easy ways to deal with this problem so that it doesn’t happen again. Teachers can stay away from endorsing any particular religion, or lack thereof, and focus on what really matters — teaching kids to explore ideas, formulate independent thoughts and come up with their own beliefs.

Parents play an important supporting role here too. We can use the example of Wooley to encourage our kids to speak up if they are ever put in a tough position like this at school. We can only hope that most teachers won’t push their personal agendas on our kids in class, but on the off chance they do, our kids need to know that it’s OK to respectfully stick up for themselves when an adult disrespects their beliefs.

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