I was substitute teaching at a high school and some kids were looking up haunted places in the area after they were done with their work. I asked if they believed in hauntings and when they replied with a variety of answers and asked me what I thought, I told them I thought it was people looking for money because ghosts and hauntings aren't real. One girl told me that I can't say that because "it violates church & state." She then told me that one time in class she had stated that she did believe in hauntings, but not in possession by demons and the like. She was given a firm talking to by the principal and suspended. When her dad came in and told off the principal, the suspension was not enforced.
So I have a few questions for those of you who understand the law.
1) That girl didn't "violate church and state," did she? She expressed an opinion that could perhaps be called blasphemy. Also, she's a student, she's not even subject to the establishment clause.
2) By my expressing the opinion that ghosts and hauntings are BS, I did not inadvertently violate the establishment clause. I get asked this question a surprising number of times - probably because I tell kids that if there isn't scientific proof, I tend not to believe it. It's not as though I say, "The Bible is a lie because there is not proof for most of it." I'm talking about ghosts and vampires and the like. I never express opinions on religion because teachers should never proselytize to their students no matter what their belief or non-belief. So should I stop debunking ghosts and other woo to save my job, or is this just a case of an overzealous principal? Did I violate the establishment clause?
not a lawyer myself but have read much on Establishment Clause law and i'd have to say emphatically NO!
1) you're absolutely right. the Establishment Clause simply bars the government, including of course government funded agencies, from acting in such a way that an objective person would interpret the action as backing one religion over all others thereby establishing a state religion. a student expressing her opinion on demons does none of this. a student expressing her opinion on religion still does none of this!
2) your expressed opinion on haunted houses would only be an Establishment Clause violation if you couched your opinion of haunted houses within a larger polemic against purported religious truths (the existence of souls for instance) while supporting atheism. i can't imagine you would have done this.
this distinction is an important one because there are plenty of people of all religions and no religion who believe in ghost hauntings and who do not (yes, i've talked to atheists that believe in residual presences after death, i.e. ghosts.).
As I understand it (I teach as well), you are allowed to answer a direct question regarding your religious beliefs. For example, if asked "do you believe in God?" you could answer "no," however when asked the followup "why not?" you could not explain as that would be seen as proselytizing your beliefs. I don't know that ghosts and hauntings are a religious matter in any way, however if they were, you most certainly WOULD be in violation of the Establishment Clause.
Put simply, you are not allowed to answer the "why?" or "what do you think?" questions regarding religious matters. But again, ghosts and hauntings are *not* a religious matter as far as I'm aware, so do not fall under the separation of church and state. I would've answered the question the same as you, probably.
As for the student's near-punishment, that's probably a BoE policy to forbid the expression of ANY spiritual sentiment so that they can't be seen as endorsing any particular viewpoint. Needless to say, such a policy is a violation of the students' First Amendment right to free speech. Schools may not cover their asses by violating students' rights.
O.K. great. Everything that everyone here has said is exactly what I was thinking.
I've also confirmed it with my wife (a lawyer).
I'm not concerned about this incident, but thought it might make an interesting discussion. I guess I'll just watch my back for over-reactive admins until I have a job and some seniority. Then I'll keep watching it, just not as carefully. :)
1. Only the government or it's representatives can violate the Establishment Clause.
2. Ghosts and hauntings could fall under the umbrella of spirituality, but then again it could not. I would avoid the topic in the future, but really you didn't press your beliefs onto anyone, the students' grade were not dependent on agreeing with you, and they asked you the question. You can give a factual, honest answer.
What the heck do ghosts and haunted houses have to do with religion? And when did they pass laws about having an opinion in school? Last I knew we had freedom of speech and expression. As far as I can see, anyone trying to stop you from being able to express your opinion is breaking the law by violating your civil rights.