The Berkeley Unified School District is investigating a report that one of its elementary school teachers might have violated the separation of church and state by teaching creationism to her third-grade class, district officials said Tuesday.
Parents of children who attend Jefferson Elementary School told the Planet that Gwen Martin—who joined Jefferson over the summer and has been on personal leave since last week—was discussing the differences between fiction and non-fiction with her students on Aug. 29 when she told them that the only thing they should believe in was God.
The parents who contacted the Planet did not themselves have children in Martin’s class. They asked not to be identified in print to protect their children.
Parents said that Martin had listed Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Harry Potter under fiction on the blackboard, which promptly reduced some of the 8-year-olds to tears, after which she made the comment about God.
They said that Martin then said that she didn’t believe in evolution or the Big Bang theory either.
A group of Jefferson parents, concerned that the teacher’s alleged actions violated their civil liberties and the separation of church and state, took the matter to Jefferson’s new principal, Maggie Riddle. The matter ultimately reached the ears of district administrators.
“We are investigating that there were reports that’s what happened,” Berkeley Board of Education President John Selawsky said Tuesday when asked about the incident at Jefferson. “It’s being dealt with. Since it’s a confidential personnel matter, that’s all I can say.”
Calls to Riddle and Martin at Jefferson were not returned.
School board member Karen Hemphill said the district would take into account a lot of factors before making any decisions about the case.
“For one, she’s a new teacher, and then we have to consider all the facts,” she said. “Regardless of what may or may not have happened, we in the Bay Area are very sensitive to not mixing education with religion. Not only are you not supposed to, but we have a wide range of religious views. There are certain laws and court cases that define what is permissible and not permissible.”
District Superintendent Bill Huyett refused comment on the status of Martin’s case, stating that it was a personnel issue.
Selawsky said that incidents such as the one reported to have occurred at Jefferson were uncommon in Berkeley.
“This is the first time in my eight years as a board member that I have heard of allegations of teaching creationism and denying evolution,” said Selawsky, who is running for re-election for a third term this year.
“You certainly don’t hear about this in the Bay Area,” he said. “In places like Kansas it’s an ongoing battle and a big political issue. There are strict stipulations in the state Education Code about what public school teachers can or cannot do. We heard about the incident from parents and from various sources.”
Selawsky said that if the allegations were true the district would likely seek some form of discipline against her.
The preaching of religion in public education has been a contentious issue in American culture for years, with cases going back to the 1940s.
The courts have ruled that public schools may not sponsor religious worship, but they may teach about religion as an academic subject, teaching about it like any other subject without teaching dogma.
The California Education Code states that “nothing in this code shall be construed to prevent, or exclude from the public schools, references to religion or references to or the use of religious literature, dance, music, theatre, and visual arts or other things having a religious significance when such references or uses do not constitute instruction in religious principles or aid to any religious sect, church, creed, or sectarian purpose and when such references or uses are incidental to or illustrative of matters properly included in the course of study.”
State Board of Education Policy on the Teaching of Natural Sciences articulates that “science teachers are professionally bound to limit their teaching to science and should resist pressure to do otherwise.”
“It’s something teachers have every right to believe in themselves, but have every duty to keep from their students,” Terry Francke of Californians Aware said of educators espousing religious beliefs in government schools. “That’s particularly serious at a primary level, when students are much more impressionable.”
The phrase “separation of church and state” itself is typically traced back to a letter written by Jefferson Elementary School’s namesake Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists in 1802, in which he referred to the First Amendment as creating a “wall of separation” between church and state.
“It’s not the job of a public school teacher to engage in evangelism,” said Rob Boston, senior policy analyst with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit education organization based in Washington D.C., which has been defending the separation of church and state for the past 61 years.
Americans United recently helped a school in New Jersey win a case against a football coach who was leading his players in prayer in spite of school authorities’ advising him against it.
“Public schools have the right to curb teachers who are preaching in class,” he said, adding that he hears about a couple of these cases every year. “It’s considered a violation of parents’ rights. The teachers’ job is to stick to teaching secular subjects. The courts have ruled repeatedly that creation is a religious concept and not legally science, and thus has no place in a public school classroom.”