Onward Christian Teachers?: Public School Mingles Dogma, Classroom Instruction

'The Christian influence at Eastern Howard School Corp. shows up in a variety of ways among administrators, staff and students,' writes the Tribune’s Lauren Slagter.

Eastern High School in Greentown, Indiana is a public high school. Based on a recent Kokomo Tribune article about the school’s Christian character, however, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

“The Christian influence at Eastern Howard School Corp. shows up in a variety of ways among administrators, staff and students,” writes the Tribune’s Lauren Slagter. As evidence, Slagter quotes the local school district’s school superintendent, Tracy Caddell.

“We are a community of Christians who also are teachers and educators, and I don’t think any of us leave our faith at the door because the bell rings,” Caddell told the Tribune. “But by the same token, we’re not teaching doctrine. We’re teaching kids, hopefully, to love thy neighbor as thyself.”

But according to the article itself, teaching doctrine is exactly what Caddell and some Eastern teachers are trying to do. The Tribune pays special attention to a “History Topics” course, an elective that ostensibly teaches the Bible as literature. Emphasis on “ostensibly.”

Its instructor, Peter Heck, told the newspaper that the Bible “is the basis of Western civilization.” That’s a value judgment entirely unsupported by the historical record, and it calls his approach to the class into serious question. So does a photo obtained by the Tribune, which shows a “prayer” by George Washington painted in such large print it takes up nearly an entire classroom wall.

The Tribune does not, however, point out that the quote isn’t actually real. Researcher Chris Rodda debunked it years ago; it’s an altered version of the letter Washington wrote to resign his position in the Army.

Then there’s Heck’s thriving side career as a fundamentalist talk radio host.

He has deep ties to the American Family Association (AFA), a Religious Right group founded in the late 1970s. According to Heck’s personal website, AFA president Tim Wildmon blurbed his book, 78: How Christians Can Save America, and he has also contributed to AFA-affiliated website OneNewsNow.

On his radio show, Heck called the Southern Poverty Law Center a “hate group” and accused them of having “radical hatred toward Christians.” He also took aim at President Obama’s recent remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast and in the process, claimed “100 percent of our constitutional history is rooted in the Judeo-Christian ethic.”

Heck’s not particularly fond of the LGBT community either. The recent suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a trans teenager from Ohio, made national headlines. Heck didn’t hesitate to capitalize on Alcorn’s death to promote his anti-LGBT views. On his show, he repeatedly refused to use the correct name and pronouns for the girl, and claimed her trans identity was simply evidence she suffered from “a mental illness.”

To the Tribune, Heck insists that his radio show doesn’t influence his approach to education. And it’s certainly legal for public schools to teach the Bible from an objective standpoint.

But some Bible classes, like Hobby Lobby owner Steve Green’s infamous evangelism attempt, fail to meet that standard. The combination of Heck’s statement to the Tribune and his extracurricular activities indicate that Eastern’s class might fail it too.

There are other matters of concern at Eastern. In the same article, teacher Karol Evenson admitted to sharing her personal religious views in the classroom. Evenson’s also charged with organizing the school’s Christmas program, and she assigns students religious songs.

“That is one major thing that’s done at Christmas time where we are singing about the birth of Christ,” she told the Tribune. “I just get real passionate about that when I’m teaching it, so it allows me to share things. A lot of times, I tell the kids, ‘I’m not asking you to believe, I’m hoping that you do and that you will, but I’m trying to get you to feel the music and what we’re singing about.’ A lot of the kids here do believe it, so when they are singing those pieces, it’s such a blessing for me.”

It might be a blessing for Evenson, but it’s also unconstitutional. As the ACLU of Indiana’s Ken Falk quite correctly told the Tribune, it’s illegal for public schools to celebrate Christmas as an explicitly Christian holiday.

It’s evident that Eastern’s “community of Christians” needs an immediate lesson in remedial constitutional law. Public schools are secular. Public classrooms aren’t your mission fields; students are there to be taught, not “saved.” If you aren’t willing to accept that, you should be teaching at a private Christian school instead.