It is a legitimate and constitutionally sound function for a public school teacher to teach about world cultures, including the religions they celebrate. What public school teachers must not do is to immerse their students in religious rituals, such as a baptism, or in the case of a fifth-grade teacher in California, Bible-based foot-washings.
A teacher at a public school near Sacramento, Calif., has apparently gone far beyond the bounds of the U.S. Constitution by engaging his students in a biblically based foot-washing ritual.
According to an Oct. 2 report from The Valley Mirror, a newspaper published in the Sacramento area, Willows Intermediate School teacher John Mattera has performed the religious ritual for many years now, apparently with little or no knowledge of many parents or school administrators.
In an interview with The Valley Mirror, Mattera admitted that he has been performing the ritual as part of his final school-year lesson since he joined the school district more than a decade ago. He then gave details about the practice, which he tells students is a lesson about leadership. He first reads from the Gospel of John, starting with Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Mattera then segues into his time as a small business owner where he performed menial duties, such as cleaning toilets, to show his underlings that he wasn’t superior. Finally students are asked if they would like him to wash their feet. After washing his students’ feet -- and as The Valley Mirror reports that most students partake in the ceremony -- Mattera asks if any student would care to wash his feet.
The few students who would talk to the newspaper about the foot-washings described feeling discomfort and an inability to refuse to participate “perhaps simply because they recognized their teacher as an authority figure,” the newspaper reported.
Mattera admitted that the Bible-based foot-washings were the only religious rituals he engaged his students in and that he only contacted a few parents who he thought might object.
The teacher also appeared to have a limited knowledge of First Amendment law. When the newspaper asked if he thought his religious instruction violated Supreme Court decisions barring public school-sponsored religious activities, Mattera responded by asking the reporter whether those decisions meant he could not read the Bible in the classroom.
Under Supreme Court decisions, public school officials, when acting in those capacities, are representatives of the government and are barred by the First Amendment from soliciting or encouraging religious activity, and from participating in such activity with students. These decisions are several decades old now.
Although school officials praised Mattera as a fine teacher and claimed ignorance of his foot-washing ritual, there is apparently a move afoot to put a stop to the foot washing.
This unconstitutional practice should never have been started. Willows Intermediate officials have a duty to uphold constitutional principles in tax-supported schools. Let’s hope they now have an understanding and appreciation for those fundamental principles.