Misinformed Christian Teacher Versus Wiccan Student March 2, 2010

Misinformed Christian Teacher Versus Wiccan Student

Let this be a lesson to public school teachers who don’t know how the law works regarding church-state separation: Stop talking before you dig yourself deeper into a hole.

Dale Halferty is an industrial arts at Guthrie Center High School in Guthrie Center, Iowa. For a project, students had to build something from scratch. One student told him he wanted to build a Wiccan altar.

Halferty said he thought about it, and decided allowing the student to make the altar “was wrong on every level.”

“It scares me. I’m a Christian,” he said. “This witchcraft stuff — it’s terrible for our kids. It takes kids away from what they know, and leads them to a dark and violent life. We spend millions of tax dollars trying to save kids from that.”

How many problems can you find with that statement?

If the project is to build something, the student was doing that.

No one cares what the teacher’s religion is. It’s irrelevant in this case.

Witchcraft is no more dangerous than Christianity — they’re both silly myths that have their fair share of problems — and for the teacher to voice an opinion on the student’s religion like this is foolish and wrong.

Halferty added that he’s an equal-opportunity denier because he applied the same rules to a Christian student:

Halferty said he previously told another student he could not build a cross in shop class because he believes in the separation of church and state. “I don’t want any religious symbols in the shop,” he said.

His viewpoint: “We as Christians don’t get to have our say during school time, so why should he?”

That’s just dumb. You know why a kid shouldn’t be allowed to build a cross in shop class? Because he would be done in two minutes. All you need is two slabs of wood and a couple of nails. Hardly a creative project.

That’s not defending separation of church and state. That’s denying a kid trying to get by with a dull, unimaginative project.

The student wanting to build the Wiccan altar has every right to do it, providing he’s following the rules of the project.

If an English teacher told students to write an essay on a topic important to them, students would be allowed to write about their faith.

The other students in the school are just as misinformed as Halferty is:

Both [Superintendent Steve] Smith and [Principal Garold] Thomas said the incident has become emotional for the high school’s 185 students: Almost 70 signed a petition late last week saying they didn’t want witchcraft practiced at the school.

“I think it’s fear based on some of the old ideas people had about witchcraft,” Smith said. “It’s fear and a lack of knowledge about the unknown.”

Smith acknowledged that some people have expressed fears about satanism or sacrifices.

He said they too could use some educating: Though Wicca is often subject to such myths, it is nonviolent and based on a shared reverence for the Earth and all living things.

At least the superintendent is making some sense. Too bad the students are overreacting.

Right now, Halferty is on paid leave.

I don’t think he needs to be fired over this; he just needs to be better educated. Let him apologize to the student and learn his lesson. Maybe some training on what is and is not allowed in the classroom would be helpful for him.

(Thanks to Charlie for the link)

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  • I’ve never understood people’s odd misconceptions about separation of church and state; like people thinking they can’t pray in schools. You can still pray whenever the heck you want, you just can’t make anyone else pray. Pray before you eat, don’t make the children in your classroom pray. How hard is that to figure out?

    When will the creepily religious figure out that separation of church and state also works in their favor? They just so want to deny others, that’s all it ever boils down to.

  • Alan E.

    I can make a cross right now in the comments section:


    Done. Didn’t even take me 2 minutes.

  • The article is assuming the Christian kid wanted to make a dull and uninspiring cross. Anyone with a knowledge of religious art can tell you a crucifix can be a very intensive piece of craftsmanship.
    That being said, both kids should have been allowed to, using the same reasoning as the English essay scenario. There is nothing about separation of church and state that limits free expression. I still agree with the article that this teacher is all kinds of wrong.

  • muggle

    Maybe I’m just dumb too because while the teacher’s wrong about the rest of it and this petition has scary implications, isn’t he right about the separation issue? Is school the place for this kid to be building the altar? Would a creche be okay?

    I’m seriously not sure what the law is here but I don’t think he’s any more entitled to make his religion a shop project than the Christian (or whatever theist else) would be to make a creche or a cross, which, can after all, be embellished with carvings or even might have been one of those gruesome ones with dead/tortured Jesus hanging from it.

    I will give this teacher who admittedly said too much (should have said no and left it at that without all the personal comments on the kid’s religion being creepy to him) credit for supporting church-state separation.

    Apparently, according to the article, he let the kid start the project but he kept bringing religious projects. If your argument is correct, then he should have allowed the cross.

    The school seems to have a policy forbidding religious expression in assignments to be banned. But how far is that taken? If the assignment is an oral report on the subject of their choice, can a student get up in front of class and either sermonize or talk about how stupid it is to believe in God.

    Where’s the Supreme Court stand on this? Has it come up yet? There must be some line that can’t crossed over. I would hope. Why can another student preach to a captive audience via a school assignment while a teacher can’t? My grandson shouldn’t be subject to either one in school where he’s not free to walk away if he chooses.

    Obviously there’s got to be some leeway in creative assignments but hopefully it stops short of preaching or festooning the school in religious icons.

  • There’s a difference between a kid expressing something religious and being taught something religious in school… so long as it’s done in a respectful way and in the way of rational dialog.

    As an atheist English teacher, I had no problems with things like Christian Students who wanted to compare James and the Giant Peach to the process of redemption as defined in his faith. Nor did I have problems with religious themes of any kind in any of the creative projects in my drama classes.

    There is a profound difference between promoting a specific religion and discussing the role of religion in the arts, literature, or society.

    Making an altar of any kind for shop class seems totally suitable, so long as the teacher wasn’t saying “make this kind of altar and not that”. Prohibiting the project because of HIS religious beliefs is where the shop teacher was absolutely wrong… and the school was also wrong for allowing or sanctioning some sort of survey that stigmatized a student on the basis of what his religion was… or wasn’t.

  • JulietEcho

    I worked freaking *hard* on some Sunday School and VBS projects as a kid that essentially boiled down to “make a cross.” They can be pretty intricate, so if you made one that showcased your wood-working skills it could be quite an impressive project.

    For the record though, the hardest one I ever made was the matchstick kind. (No, not two matchsticks crossed! Do a Google image search for “matchstick cross” already!)

    That said, making a matchstick Wiccan altar would be, I imagine, a lot more difficult!

  • Jeff Dale

    Sounds like this teacher was at least trying to be reasonable (supporting church-state separation), though he apparently was woefully misinformed about Wicca. I figure that’s better than a teacher who scoffs at and willfully undermines church-state separation. Apology plus education rather than dismissal, IMHO. Good “teachable moment” for the rest of the kids, too.

  • Carlie

    I think that the teacher was in the right to not allow religious projects. There’s too much potential for the teacher to be influenced one way or the other in grading it, based on whether the teacher agrees with the religion in question or not. And even if the teacher tries to be neutral, it’s a mine field of critiquing the project without sounding like you’re critiquing the religion. I think it’s entirely prudent to say that you aren’t going to allow that subject; if a student has no interests other than religion to express, that’s a whole other set of problems the student has.

  • Heidi

    If I were the shop teacher, I would allow the kids to make anything they wanted within the rules and scope of the project. But they should be aware that two boards and a nail is going to get a bad grade. Now if they wanted to make a fancy Celtic cross or carve a dead Jesus crucifix or something, they might get a better grade.

    It’s not like you stand up in front of the class and give a speech about your shop project. Because realistically, you’d end up with a whole lot of “so this is my shelf…”

    I’d also flush the students’ petition. School is not a democracy. Deal. But I probably wouldn’t discipline the teacher beyond reversing his decision. Maybe he could write a report on modern misconceptions about Wicca. lol.

  • KeithLM

    Hemant, your comment about the cross being to easy is completely out of line. You don’t know what kind of work the kid was going to put into it. That shows a pretty clear anti-Christian bias on your part.

    I’d like to know more about this:
    “When the student said he wasn’t, Halferty told him he could work on his project — a table that would become the altar — provided he kept religious materials at home.

    However, he said, the student kept returning to class with a book of witchcraft. ”

    I’m guessing the kid was using it as a guide, however if he was performing some sort of blessing or ritual, that might be out of line.

    Overall I think this teacher overreacted and needs a bit of education. And I think the school should consider teaching a bit about alternative religions so people shed these stupid fears and superstitions.

  • JD

    One problem is a lack of exposure and a fear of the unknown. Popular misconceptions abound.

    Wicca is what it is, I don’t agree with it, but I think it’s safer than Christianity. The real problem is that people have an irrational fear of it. Very few people know what it is, few know those that practice it. It doesn’t help that it seems to be practiced very quietly and often secretly, I think largely because of the high risk of persecution by people that put up walls rather than just asking honest questions.

  • People who freak out about “witchcraft” tend to object to what they *think* Wicca is, not what it actually is. So the teacher’s fear is based on a strawperson (regardless of his decision).

  • flatlander100

    Three points:

    1. Proper way to have handled it was to simply say to both, “make whatever you like. But remember, they’ll be graded according to the standards that apply to all the projects: degree of difficulty, quality of design and execution, etc.”

    2.Failing that, applying the same standard to both — no religious objects — was an acceptable alternative, though just barely, to avoid scenarios involving parents claiming religious discrimination if one project was poorly done and the other well done. [I can see the headlines in the local paper now: “Witch Altar Gets A; Cross Gets F! What’s Happening In Our Schools?”

    3. What is even more appalling is the apparent belief among 70 or so of the students in the school that religious belief among the student body is and should be subject to majority vote. I’m more worried about the instruction they’re getting in civics and the Constitution than I am about how things are going in woodshop.

  • Re church and state separation: a person doing a project is not the same thing as, say, a teacher imposing their views in a public classroom. Church/state doesn’t apply the same way to student creative work and free expression.

  • liz

    wow…if you read the article it really was ONLY because he was scared. Even after the teacher found out his religous beliefs he said the altar was fine…but then got scared when the kid kept bringing a wiccan book to school. (which i assume he may have used as a reference for the altar)

    i found out this one girl in my class was wiccan and i kinda sorta made fun of her. and then i felt terrible because i’m sure she gets worse shit than that constantly. so i apologized, told her i was atheist and let her know i think christianity is not only fake, but full of sheep. we’re friends again.

  • Although a Constitutional attorney would hand me my head for saying this, I’m with Muggle on this one. I think the teacher was on the right track with the whole separation thing, but somewhere he just got a little carried away.
    Point#2 by flatlander100 also supports the stance that allowing no manufacture of religious objects on school grounds is the safe way to go.

  • Mak

    Yeah, I would believe his separation of church and state thing if he had said the same thing about the Wiccan student. But, uh, he didn’t. Man, his case would have been so much stronger if he hadn’t resorted to fear mongering.

  • I have to disagree with you entirely here. I agree with the shop teacher, although he said some dumb things.
    First of all, if I were a shop teacher, I’d ban crosses, altars, prayer wheels and all things religious, just to avoid church-state separation problems.
    Second of all, I can easily envision an ornate cross that would be harder to construct than a simple altar.
    After all, the altar could just be three planks nailed together to form a simple raised platform.

  • Justin

    I have to say that I could really go either way on this one. Sure, the teacher said some ignorant things — but he has two options in his class:

    1. Disallow *any* shop project related to religion

    2. Allow *any* shop project related to religion

    This isn’t much different than any other public forum first amendment issue. However if a student chooses to use the shop project to create a religious object – with no prompting or suggestion from the teacher – then they have every right to do so.

    If a student creates a cross by nailing together two boards – no problem. Of course it’s an “F” shop project but that’s unrelated to the cross. If the kid with the altar slapped four boards together with tape and balanced a fifth across the top that would also be an “F” shop project.

    Either student could have taken the time to create a detailed, ornate expression of their religion – by their own choice and while not disrupting the class – and been within their rights.

  • I see a lot of talk about what should have happened, but the arguments are all paper.

    The constitution is paper. The fist amendment has been disputed or ignored to some extent or another from day one.

    That is history, and as diplomatic as it would seem to forbid any religious projects/discussions etc and apply it to every student and teacher, the rule could and WOULD extend to students taking offense at history and science classes.

    History suggests that this student has secured the position of Pariah and will keep it so long as they stay in that town. They will likely maintain an oppressed minority mindset so long as their religion has comparatively no organization and no money.

  • ckitching

    Alan, if you want a comments cross, try the unicode dagger character (& #x2020;) since lowercase Ts look very different in certain typefaces.

    Although, I prefer the smiley face: ☺ (& #x263a;)

  • At least the teacher was fair in denying both students and, in his own way, supporting church/state separation. The fact that he at least acknowledged Wicca as a religion is also kind of good. Still he does come off as rather ignorant, which I have found to be true of far too many teachers.
    At my daughter’s school I keep having issues with teachers telling students not to see movies because god wouldn’t like it or saying prayers during school events(commencement, choir, veterans day and other programs). My wife, who likes to think she is christian, tells me to keep quite because we live in a small town. If I got “outed” or rocked the boat too much I have to admit I’m a little worried about the repercussions for my daughter, wife and her family. So I can kind of understand the mentality they are dealing with in this case because I am dealing with it in my community. It is sad that in a world where all the information you could want is at your fingertips, people are still so blind and ignorant.

  • As a former Wiccan this doesn’t surprise me. The amount of ignorance and hatred leveled at Wiccans by Christians would be astonishing if I hadn’t seen so much of it. Just this week I found out that former coworker thought I was trying to put a spell on him when I tried to describe this video of Bobby McFerrin. My ex-coworker thought I was saying “pentagrammic” scale instead of pentatonic scale. He is a music major in college and really ought to know better, but fundamentalist fear of witchcraft does strange things to people.

  • I’m with Muggle on this one. I think the shop teacher was right not to allow either, but perhaps could have gone about it better.

    Imagine if the teacher had allowed the student to make a cross – all the atheists (me included) would have jumped up and down. I’d be really shit-off as a parent if my kid came home from school and said kids are making crosses and altars – a whole load of religious imagery in woodwork class. good grief!

    this comment annoyed me more thn anything the teacher said:
    ‘That’s not defending separation of church and state. That’s denying a kid trying to get by with a dull, unimaginative project.

    I think that’s bull.

    not being American i can’t comment much on the church/state separation issue – except to say it pretty laughable from over here – religion (Christianity) seems to be anything but separate from ANYTHING, especially the state.

  • The fact that “Halferty said he previously told another student he could not build a cross in shop class because he believes in the separation of church and state” is an irrelevant distraction probably to deflect criticism.

    His viewpoint: “We as Christians don’t get to have our say during school time, so why should he?”

    This is just typical Christian persecution complex. Oh boo hoo.

  • Living in Taiwan has drawbacks. One of them is that I can’t watch The New Yankee Workshop, starring Nahm (that’s Norm for non-Nor’Easters).
    Nahm could build a scale model of the Statue of Liberty out of toothpicks, but he would make his own toothpicks first, starting with some rough hewn cedar, pine, cherry wood and some lovely Bird’s Eye maple.
    He would run that wood through the table saw, take the jigsaw to it, attach the dado-head cutter to the router…and before you know it, Lady Liberty complete with a couple of hidden drawers in the base.
    Whenever someone mentions woodworking or shop class projects, I always think of Nahm and the sort of crucifix he would crank out in a 30-minute episode. Beveled edges, flush mounted at the intersection of the vertical and horizontal elements, tapered base for ease of mounting…
    I think this student should have been permitted to make whatever the hell inspired him to use the machinery and materials to their best effect – if that’s a cross, so be it. The only question is whether the project employs the skill set taught in class and to what degree.
    Separation of church and state prevents the SCHOOL from promoting one belief system over another. It does not prevent the student from expressing their belief. If a creationist student wants to answer “God did it” on the biology exam, they get a bad mark. That’s the end of it.
    If the wood shop kid wants to make a cross, he should be permitted to do so. The cross is then assessed as per the metrics of wood working. If it’s two planks nailed roughly together, he gets an F. If it looks like something Nahm would make, he gets an A. If it comes complete with a hand-carved Jesus that bleeds real blood, we call Max Von Sydow and cue the scary fuckin’ music.

  • I want to be more clear about the issue of separation of church and state, as there seems to be some confusion about what it means and how it applies.

    The separation of church and state was conceived to prevent the state from endorsing or enforcing any theology on the people. It was never contemplated that people would be prevented from the free expression of their beliefs.

    IF the shop teacher were to say “You may construct a cross but not a Star of David,” that would violate the constitution as you would have an agent of the state (the teacher) giving preference to one religious expression over another.

    IF the shop teacher were to say “You may construct anything you like” there is no violation as the state is not preferring any religious belief system over another.

    IF the shop teacher were to say “No religious symbols may be made in shop class” it would not be a separation of church and state problem, but it MIGHT BE a 1st Amendment problem – restricting freedom of expression.

    The metric to be applied to assessing a wood shop project (one supposes) is the skill demonstrated in the use of materials and equipment in the making of the object, not the nature of the object itself.
    If the kid makes an incredibly complex six-pointed star or a particularly ornate water hookah (read BONG), the only question ought to be, “Does the project demonstrate the skill sets taught in the course?” The question should NOT be, “Does the object comport with my sense of right and wrong.”

    Separation of church and state binds THE STATE (and its agents), not the individual citizen. People who forget that may well find themselves involved in litigation. There is nothing in the constitution that supports the argument “No religious symbols may be made in shop class.”

    The school is certainly precluded from forcing students to make crosses and only crosses (or a mogen David and only mogen David). [Note: This is not as simple an argument as it appears – there is certainly an element of woodworking that REQUIRES being able to join two pieces of wood at a 90 degree angle, flush mounted at the joint. One would have to demonstrate a religious preference…blah blah blah…I digress.]

    The school has, IMO, no business saying “Thou shalt make no religious symbols.” Not unless they also ban the students from wearing crosses, ‘God is Dead’ t-shirts, and have some sort of secular-based policy in place to support this shop teacher’s off-the-cuff and rather muddled reasoning.

  • Christophe Thill

    Ah, “lack of knowledge about the unknown”. Really big problem. How are we goint to solve it ?

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Smith acknowledged that some people have expressed fears about satanism or sacrifices.

    Yo, Steve-o: The very center of the Christian religion is an act of human sacrifice. You can look it up yourself in that Bible you keep on your shelf but obviously never read.

  • GribbletheMunchkin

    Kimbo Jones said
    People who freak out about “witchcraft” tend to object to what they *think* Wicca is, not what it actually is. So the teacher’s fear is based on a strawperson (regardless of his decision).

    I think you mean a whickerperson. Or Wiccaperson.

    Thanks folks, i’m here all week.

  • DGKnipfer

    I grew up in a small town in Iowa and Guthrie Center sounds exactly the same. A town full of ignorant WASPs with no sense of right or wrong that do a lot of fearful dithering anytime somebody steps out from the norm. I hope Dale wakes up and actually learn the law on Separation of Church and State, and I wish his student the best of luck because he’s going to need it. It was rough being an outsider in such a small community.

  • stogoe

    Man, cousinavi, you just made me flash back to my childhood, spending countless Saturday mornings watching New Yankee Workshop and This Old House on PBS.

  • Katie

    I’d say both of the kids should be allowed to make whatever they want, be it a cross or an altar. Grade them on their work, not on their choice of project. I still have a few things I made from woodshop in middle school, and they are meaningful to me because I put the work into them, slaved over them, loved them. Let the kids have their memories and their beloved projects.

    As long as the items are acceptable for viewing during the creation process (i.e. no naked figures, cuss words, etc carved in) then I have no problem with it.

  • Slickninja

    Wow, that is unique. 70 students signed a petition they don’t want witchcraft being practiced in their school? The more I learn about my highschool, the more I realize I was in a mecca for religious tolerance. I knew a few openly Wiccan kids, none were harassed just like me being openly (sometimes too openly) atheist. Apparently HS in the late 90s in a small southern Oregon town was the place to be…. who knew?

  • I have no problem with students being allowed to make religious projects in shop class.

    That is history, and as diplomatic as it would seem to forbid any religious projects/discussions etc and apply it to every student and teacher, the rule could and WOULD extend to students taking offense at history and science classes.

    Exactly. There seem to be a lot of people who don’t think that students should be allowed to make religious projects in public school, by which I assume they mean projects even tangentially associated with religion.

    But this is simply impossible. How in the world could you teach history without mentioning various religions? If children are studying ancient Egypt, they learn what the people believed about deities and the afterlife. It would not be inappropriate for them to build replicas of pyramids and mummies. If they’re studying medieval Europe, it would be perfectly fine for them to draw a picture of a cathedral. If they’re studying ancient Mesopotamia, then ziggurats would be in order.

    I live in California, and all fourth graders here learn about the California Missions as part of a year-long focus on state history. Children research the missions, write reports, create stories, and often build models like these. This is history, not proselytization or an inappropriate breach of separation of church and state. As an atheist, I have no problem with it.

  • With one thing i agree – separation of church and state is a good idea that can avoid a lot unpleasant situations.

  • Anonymous

    False assertion #1: Witchcraft is no more dangerous than Christianity.
    False assertion #2: They’re both silly myths that have their fair share of problems.
    False assertion #3: For the teacher to voice an opinion on the student’s religion [e.g. witchcraft] like this is foolish and wrong.

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