Religious proselytizing forbidden in the classroom, but not in the school newspaper?

Expressions, a student publication at San Luis Obispo High School, published a teacher’s letter condemning homosexuality that provoked outrage.
Expressions, a student publication at San Luis Obispo High School, published a teacher’s letter condemning homosexuality that provoked outrage. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

He may have been exercising his right to free speech, but San Luis Obispo High School teacher Michael Stack — who has since resigned — showed horrible judgment when he wrote a letter condemning homosexuality that was published in an online edition of a student newspaper.

In his letter, Stack agrees with a biblical passage that says people engaging in homosexual acts “deserve to die,” and he urges students to get “back on the right path.”

The San Luis Coastal Unified School District is of the legal opinion that, under California law, Stack had the right to state his beliefs in the school newspaper. That may not be the final word, however; because the district’s legal counsel is continuing to research the issue.

We respect the district’s obligation to follow the law, but in defending Stack’s freedom of speech, we believe another core principle is being compromised: separation of church and state.

The Constitution forbids teachers in public schools from proselytizing in the classroom.

It crosses the line when a teacher or school district portrays one religion or religion in general as the preferred belief,” is the way the national Center for Public Education explains it.

So here’s the conundrum: Teachers are forbidden from imposing their personal religious beliefs on a class of, say, 30 or 40 students. Yet they can do so in a student-run, taxpayer-supported newspaper read by hundreds, even thousands, of students?

What state-sanctioned hypocrisy.

A teacher’s proselytizing in a student newspaper is bound to influence what happens inside the classroom. How could it not? How could LGBTQ students sit in a classroom and take direction from a teacher who believes homosexual acts are so heinous that, in God’s eyes, those students deserve to die?

Michelle Call, a San Luis Obispo parent with a daughter in seventh grade, says about 50 people protested at San Luis Obispo High School on Thursday, May 11, 2017, after a teacher wrote a letter to the school newspaper in opposition to an issue foc

School officials stress that Stack is a good person who was well-liked by his students.

That’s good to know, but here’s a concern: It could seem like even more of a betrayal to discover that a teacher who is well-respected and trusted is anti-gay.

Administrators say students are handling the controversy well — adults are reacting much more strongly. Is it any wonder the community is reacting? It’s hard to reconcile the fact that in a school district that stresses tolerance and respect, intolerance would be on such open display — coming from a teacher, no less, who is in a position of authority.

The district issued a statement Friday saying that, from now on, disclaimers will run with letters to explain that writers are expressing their own opinions — not the views of the district, school board or newspaper.

That’s a step in the right direction, but it’s no cure. That still will give teachers and other staff members a school-sponsored sounding board where they can express their personal religious beliefs and, as in this case, condemn others who do not share their beliefs.

No one wants to rob teachers of their right to express religious opinions, but there are any number of avenues outside of the public school system where they can opine, including Facebook, blogs, chatrooms and secular and religious newspapers.

Using a school publication to embrace views that many find hateful and repugnant — and that can make students uncomfortable or ashamed — is not what we expect from public school teachers.

The vast majority of teachers realize and respect this.

Michael Stack did not.

That doesn’t make him a monster deserving of death threats.

It does suggest that a position in a public school is not the best fit for him — or for any teacher who feels morally compelled to cross the line with students by espousing a particular religion or system of beliefs.

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