Thursday, March 04, 2010

Church, State, Wicca, Etc.,

A Lucas County boy named Dale Halferty, educator for 20 years and for the last three industrial arts teacher in the Guthrie Center district, has ended up in hot water and has been suspended for five days. His offense? Telling a student he couldn’t build a Wiccan altar as an industrial arts project. Hmmm.

All I know about stuff is what I read in the papers, of course, so my source of information is The Des Moines Register --- and witnessing the bemused head-shaking the other day of one of Halferty’s teachers, now retired, in Chariton.

Wicca, by the way, is a neopagan religion whose practitioners often refer to themselves as witches, in the nicest possible way, practitioners of what they consider a benign form of white earth-centered magic. It’s a 20th century creation that claims ancient roots, sometimes acknowledges pagan deities and generally tries to operate outside the frameworks of the world’s dominant religions --- Secularism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hindu.

Aw shucks, you may be saying to yourself, aint no Wiccans in these parts. Well think again. Doing a Web search a year or so ago for Red Haw State Park I came upon a blog description of a Wiccan service at the old stone shelter house there. So there are Wiccans among us, although not many I’d guess.

And I’ve met and visited with a few Wiccans along the road and come away with a respect for their beliefs and outook although with no particular urge to share them. Some have been intrigued by Native American spirituality and its integrated approach to creation, but unwilling to intrude uninvited into the cultures in which that spirituality is rooted. Others have been turned off by the cavalier approach to the earth and its resources that have marked a culture identifying itself as Christian. Wicca is not Satanism and there seems to be about as many Wiccan as there are Baptist sects. Both can get mighty confusing.

Anyhow, according to Register reports, Halferty, who says he believes in the separation of church and state (amen to that one), had previously told another student he couldn’t built a cross in industrial arts class, but had allowed the student who told him that the table he was building would be a Wiccan altar to work on the project so long as he left religious materials at home. The rationale may have been that a cross has obvious religious meaning while a table does not. When the boy kept bringing a “book of witchcraft” to class, Halferty deep-sixed the altar project.

Administrators, responding to a complaint, declared that school, state and federal policy and law prohibit discrimination against students who express religious beliefs in school assignments and suspended Halferty for five days without pay for “insubordination.”

Talking to The Register, Halferty muddied the water by saying he “doesn’t understand why school officials are forcing him to act against his own beliefs as a Christian and allow the student to disrupt his class with a project based on a religion he believes is wrong and bad for youth.”

That implies that Halferty was discriminating against a student based upon his own beliefs, clearly prohibited, while occurrences preceding this sort of statement suggested he was merely attempting to be even-handed.

Truth be told, the relationship between public schools and religion is a minefield that I wouldn’t care to walk through as either an administrator or a teacher. Some of the rules are fairly clear --- no school-organized prayer, no school-organzed Bible reading or study sessions. But then it gets muddy. Students are not to be prohibited from sharing their religious beliefs so long as sharing doesn’t become harassment. But harassment often is tricky to quantify. While prohibited from teaching religion, Schools are allowed to teach about religion. But in Iowa at least, attempts to develop religion curricula have foundered when developers and parents failed to reach consensus.

Darned if I know the answers here.

But I do have two suggestions (and have you ever noticed how those of us who don’t have kids are just full of advice for those who do?).

If you’re worried about Wicca or any other unconventional spiritual path your kids might wander down, pick a church, synagogue or other conventional religious assembly, attend its services and enroll the kids in its religious education program and make sure they attend. There’s no guarantee they will follow the path you might prefer, but at least they will have a spiritual foundation. I’m always amazed at families that identify as “Christian,” but never darken a church door and depend upon television to instill values in the kids. What are they thinking?

And I’ve always thought, given kids, availability and an adequate supply of tuition money, I’d send the little devils to a parochial school, most likely a Roman Catholic one. Catholics seem best at offering enlightened curricula while sparing students whose parents don’t want it religious indoctrination.

Fortunately, I’m not a school administrator, not a teacher and don’t have kids. So I get to sit here and fire potshots without having too big a stake in the consequences.


Anonymous said...

Yes, by all means, squash any sincere desire to explore an alternative spiritual path by pushing your kid into the nearest mainstream church...
Hello? Are we really so smugly certain that "we" have the only valid spiritual path, and that any others, especially those with scary looking symbols and more than one deity, are to be avoided at any cost?

Frank D. Myers said...

Not at all, so far as "smugly certain" and "valid spiritual path" are concerned. And you're welcome to substitute other spiritual traditions for "mainstream church." I'm just saying that parents who claim commitment to a specific path and would like to see their children follow it had better be prepared to lead by example and offer some instruction and guidance.