Easter is just around the corner (April 8), and Christians around the world will be celebrating the Good News of redemption made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
However, as Easter approaches, I have a different kind of good news related to Easter, coming from what many think would be an unlikely place: our public schools.
I am seeing public school teachers gain confidence to teach the biblical story of Christ’s death and resurrection. Too few people realize that, for years, the academic standards of various states have expected students to learn this important part of history.
For example, in California, sixth-grade students are expected to “note the origins of Christianity in the Jewish Messianic prophecies, the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as described in the New Testament, and the contribution of St. Paul the Apostle to the definition and spread of Christian beliefs (e.g., belief in the Trinity, resurrection, salvation).”
In Massachusetts, seventh-graders are to “describe the origins of Christianity and its central features. (A) monotheism; (B) the belief in Jesus as the Messiah and God’s son who redeemed humans from sin; (C) the concept of salvation.”
The Supreme Court has actually endorsed the Bible as worth of study in a public school setting. In the case of Abington School District v. Schempp, the Supreme Court ruled that schools could not have mandatory daily Bible reading in public schools. However, Justice Clark, writing the majority opinion, clarified:
. . . The state may not establish a “religion of secularism” in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion, thus “preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.” . . . It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities.
More than mere permission from the Court, I take that last sentence as an endorsement.
Public school teachers in California are actually protected by law when they use the Bible in their classrooms. In explaining that California education laws are not intended to censor references to religion, California Education Code 51511 states:
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.
Easter is a significant holiday celebrated by millions of Americans and billions of people worldwide. It is both academically justified and legally permitted for teachers to explain this culturally relevant event to their students.
To help public school teachers approach the topic with academic and legal integrity, Gateways to Better Education has designed a public-school-friendly Easter lesson. Designed to look like pages from a textbook, this lesson is easy to use with students. It paraphrases the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus as told by Luke (chapters 22-24). It highlights phrases commonly used in the English language that come from the story (such as “kiss of death”), and it shows the story's relevance to history, art, music, and language arts. It includes valuable tips on how to teach about religion objectively. It also includes a "For Parents and Educators" information page that will help alleviate concerns some parents or administrators may have about the appropriateness of this lesson.
Don’t assume students from conservative communities already know the Easter story. Nancy, a public school teacher in Alabama, was surprised when she used the Easter lesson to teach all her seventh-grade classes.
“Keep in mind,” she told me, “this is Alabama, where there is a church on every corner. But, at the end of each class I asked my students to raise their hands if they had never heard this story before. Eric, in every class I had students tell me they had never heard about the death and resurrection of Jesus!”
Public school teachers have the academic and legal freedom to teach the historical and cultural significance of Easter this year. Sadly, too many administrators and educators don’t know the freedom they already have. As we prepare to celebrate the Good News of the Gospel this Easter, let’s share the good news of academic freedom to teach about Easter in our schools. When it comes to the academic and legal freedom they already have, may this Easter season be a time when educators say, “Once I was blind, but now I can see.”
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