Why Separation of Religion and State = Freedom of Religion

Separation of church and state, or, more appropriately, religion and state, is not on my priority list as a candidate for school board because I believe Buncombe County School system gets this right. However, due to a bit of confusion (a “plus” that may look like a cross on my signs), I want to make my position on this principle clear.

Simply put, religion has no place as part of official public school instruction or activities. According to BCS policy #3532, no one acting in an official capacity may either encourage or discourage the practice of religion. That means not leading students or staff in any religious activities as part of the school program. Students may gather, pray and potentially even give out information to other students outside of instructional time or other official school activities. Faculty may do the same among each other, but not with students. Students may express religious thoughts or beliefs in the context of studies (e.g., in a poem or story), but religious instruction may not be done by school staff for students.

Why is this separation so important? And how does it result in freedom of religion? It is simply a matter of not forcing beliefs or practices on anyone. This is no different from teachers not expressing political beliefs or opinions on any number of controversial subjects. Requiring a student to support a particular belief (through participation or just being present) steps outside the bounds of public education, alienates students who have different beliefs and invades what should be a private family matter. Every student and staff should feel equally welcome and respected. That means respecting their right to their own beliefs, and not making them feel left out, less than or even persecuted if they do not follow majority thinking.

What do I believe should be the role of religion in public schools? That students may freely discuss their opinions with each other and express themselves in ways that do not harm others. Great teachers, in my opinion, teach students HOW to think, how to listen to and wrestle with ideas and conflicting opinions, and how to make up their own minds. They do not, in this realm, teach them WHAT to think. In my ideal world, social studies faculty could teach about each major religion from an objective point of view, so that students could gain a deeper understanding of other cultures, without feeling their own beliefs were threatened. Until we get to that point, religion needs to have no role in the official conduct of public education.

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Linda Tatsapaugh


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