Fourth Grader Admonished for Wanting to Write About God

When 10-year-old Erin Shead of Memphis, Tennessee received an assignment from her elementary school teacher to choose and write about an idol she looked up to, she settled on someone she dearly loves and admires. God. Others were up for consideration, but Erin reckoned of her choice, "He will always be the #1 person I look up to."

Getting to work, Erin proceeded to draw a pink and green flow chart on notebook paper. Erin's mother aptly described the product as "cute and innocent." But the teacher told Erin her work was unacceptable. Not only would she have to start over, Erin was directed to remove the paper from school premises that afternoon.

Why, you ask? Why did the teacher take this drastic measure and embarrass Erin in this way? Did Erin choose Osama bin Laden or Adolf Hitler? Did she go with the once-revered-but-now-hated former basketball coach of the Memphis Tigers, John Calipari?

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No, apparently worse than even those options, Erin chose God as her idol.

God would certainly qualify for the assignment. Supporting her thesis of "I look up to God," Erin diagrammed several reasons, including the compelling fact: "He is the reason I am on this earth."

But no matter the reasons, Erin's teacher acted on concerns about so-called "separation of church and state" and forbid as much as a mention of God in her classroom.

Erin resigned to write about Michael Jackson instead (which was deemed acceptable.) She came home distressed at the way her teacher had treated her, and confused about why she was not allowed to have her Creator as an idol.

Erin's mother was understandably upset. She took her concerns to the principal at Lucy Elementary School in the Shelby County school system. Standing up for her daughter, she asked to see the policy in writing that precluded students from talking about God. She also took her concerns to local media, pressing the school system to act.

Soon thereafter, Shelby County Schools apologized to the family and said the following in a release about the incident. "No laws or district policies allow teachers to limit students' expression of religious beliefs in their personal classwork. This was a regrettable misunderstanding, and we as educators must learn from it."

The law forced this tempered response. There is nothing unconstitutional about students expressing their faith in a school setting; in fact, it is blatantly unconstitutional to unfairly target religious speech for restriction.

Despite the law being so clear on this point, many teachers and administrators seemingly have a toxic reaction to any utterance of God, Jesus, or religion on school property, even if a student initiates it. In addition to courses on mathematics and language arts, there might be some class for education majors on how to excise God from school. Or perhaps, too many get involved with extracurricular activities sponsored by the ACLU.

Regardless of how the "separation of church and state" myth is propagated, it is having an effect. For every Erin Shead who has the temerity to question the attack on her Christian beliefs, there are scores of children who silently accept the word of school figures that something is wrong with God and His name should never come up on school grounds. They learn to follow the rules: No fighting, no cheating, and no God.

But when students and parents stand up for their rights, positive things happen. Families only need remember: students do not shed their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door, on the other side of the metal detectors.

Though poor Erin was made to suffer the indignity of chastisement over her choice, Christians with children in public schools should be encouraged by this story, reaffirming the truth that God is still welcome in the classroom.

Nate Kellum is chief counsel for the Center for Religious Expression a non-profit organization in Memphis, TN dedicated entirely to the protection of religious speech.

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