My Thoughts About Freedom of Religion

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

https://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/first_amendment

Full Definition of RELIGION

1 a :  the state of a religious <a nun in her 20th year of religion> b (1) :  the service and worship of God or the supernatural (2) :  commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance

2:  a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices

3 archaic :  scrupulous conformity :  conscientiousness

4:  a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

Full Definition of FAITH

1a :  allegiance to duty or a person :  loyalty b (1) :  fidelity to one’s promises (2) :  sincerity of intentions

2a (1) :  belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2) :  belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion

b (1) :  firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2) :  complete trust

3:  something that is believed especially with strong conviction; especially :  a system of religious beliefs <the Protestant faith>

on faith :  without question <took everything he said on faith>

http://www.merriam-webster.com/

What does Freedom of Religion mean to me as a Christian? To me, it means that I may go to the church of my choice and worship in the manner that suits me best (as long as it does no harm to others). Freedom of religion also means that I, as a public school teacher and an employee paid from taxpayers’ pockets, I do not impose my Religion on my students or their parents. However, I do get to practice my Faith. To me, there is a significant difference between religion and faith. Although religion and faith are aligned, and sometimes used interchangeably, they are not necessarily the same. In this format, for religion, I will use Webster’s definition 2: a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices. For faith, I will use Webster’s definition 2a (1) :  belief and trust in and loyalty to God.

All four gospels state that Jesus communicated a new commandment: To love our neighbors as ourselves. (Shout out to the Pilgrims Sunday School class at HCUMC!) Wow! That’s pretty big! Now, I ask, how do Christians love others when they attempt to use the state or federal law to further their own Religious beliefs? Remember, I see religion as an institutionalized system. My faith is belief, trust, and loyalty to God. So, in my faith, I love my students and their parents. Certainly not perfectly because I am human and sometimes my human frustrations with other human decisions cloud my judgment. However, I, in no way believe that my freedom of religion is being denied. It is not up to me, as a public school teacher, to impose religious beliefs on students. However, it is up to me as a Christian to be a vessel of God’s love. Maybe, at some point, my students and their parents will recognize God’s love through me. However, no one will stop me from praying for, worrying about, or brainstorming for my students.  Similarly, I do not want my own children to be influenced by the religious beliefs of their public school teachers. Maybe I do not agree with the teachers about religion, and do not want my children swayed to pray in ways that I disagree with. No one will stop my children from quietly praying at school or for their classmates and teachers. (FYI- Texas schools continue to say the US pledge and the Texas pledge, which each include “under God,” and many have a moment of silence every morning.) My choice is to take them to a church where we, as members of the same denomination, share similar beliefs and values. This sharing of beliefs is what family and church are for. My church has adults who teach, guide, and care about my children, and choosing my church was intentional.

When people who stand on their “Christian” beliefs in order to implement law to impose them on (and sometimes oppress) others, I wonder whether it’s really about Freedom of Religion, or about thinking everyone else needs to believe what they believe. Freedom of Religion in the United States is not just Christianity. It’s also Judaism, paganism, Muslims, and others. So, when Christians ask for prayer in school, do they want Freedom for all Religions or just their own? What about freedom to deny services or health care benefits? Should I be denied services by a Muslims because I do not cover my head? How about Scientologist business owners… should they deny health care contribution for Psychiatric care?

Why do some Christians not spread the message that our God is a loving God? Why must some Christians use their religion to invalidate (and sometimes oppress) others, and then cry lack of freedom of religion when they are challenged? Now, I know it gets pretty ugly, and some people may be pushing the Christian business owners a little too far, and that is sad. However, to me, standing on religious beliefs rather than spreading God’s love through faith is not what being a Christian is about (as I’ve mentioned in a previous blog). The fact that some pastors are saying that they will not be forced to perform marriages of gay couples is a little silly. Of course they won’t be forced to do so! They are part of religious establishments. Maybe they use their churches as businesses, so they don’t know the difference between a business and a church? Maybe they just have not actually read the first amendment? Maybe they are just using their black robes as a platform from which to send the message that they don’t approve? I don’t know. Whichever way you look at it, it’s ridiculous because they should know better an ALL accounts. Hence, I am so glad I’m not being forced to attend their churches (which is freedom of religion)!!

So, my Christian Friends, I just ask you to please be careful when you “preach” freedom of religion. How are your religious practices really being imposed upon, and are you really representing Jesus’ primary commandment to love others? Also, do you really want to promote politicians who use your faith to advance their political aspirations? (It seems I heard something about that in a sermon recently…) No, I’m not perfect…I have a nasty little spark in me that can use ugly words to bring grown men to their knees. I’m not proud of it, and I work to keep it under control. However, I also intentionally teach my children to love others, regardless of their abilities, their sexuality, the color of their skin, the languages they speak, and the religions they practice.

Yes, I’m a little defiant. Why wouldn’t I be? Growing up, I had two families and two religious denominations. One believed in their “close” communion, and the other welcomed everyone to the table. One continues to bar women from pastoral leadership roles, and the other has ordained women as ministers for many years. I am married to a veteran, and together we have experienced some of the grittiness in life that many people only hear about. I have spunk and fight in me. However, I also have compassion. I am compassionate toward the parents who are doing their best to bring up their children with very few resources. I am compassionate toward individuals who know firsthand that you don’t choose who you love. I am compassionate toward the teenagers who are struggling with their sexuality and to those who have chosen to end their pregnancies because they felt like they had no other choices. Christians should not deny these people their stories . These stories are theirs, and they get to own them.

Oh, and by the way, yes, I pick and choose my definitions of religion and faith. I also pick and choose scripture. Everyone does, but not everyone admits it. I cut my hair, I have 4 tattoos (which I must conceal for work but not for church), I used oral contraceptives for many years (without remorse), and I actually speak directly to the pastors at church (I don’t  go through my husband first). I am so glad I have the freedom to worship at a church where I am welcomed and valued – tattoos and all!

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About those tests…(thoughts on standardized testing)

As we come upon a crazy week of tests in our schools across Texas, I want to address standardized testing.

I was having a conversation with my husband the night before I administered one of the STAAR (State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness) exams a few weeks ago. He asked about why I don’t like standardized tests because I had voiced my frustration over the previous weeks that my students, who are supposed to be on a modified curriculum, do not have access to modified tests. In response to my husband, I stated, “I don’t like standardized tests because we don’t have standardized kids.” I meant this in all ways…My students (who receive special education services), other students (who perform at grade level), gifted students, and our own personal children. Students who have Individualized Education Plans are being set up for failure. We are supposed to fill in the gaps for them, but they are somehow supposed to be prepared to take a grade-level test? How? What kind of message are we receiving as educators, and sending to students and parents when we tell them that they no longer have a choice about which tests the students take?

As an educator, it is important that I not cause too many waves…I do want to keep my job, after all. I also acknowledge that the purpose of the test is to make sure the students are learning what the state has put forth for them to learn, as outlined in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). However, I believe there has to be a better way to do this, especially for students with learning or intellectual disabilities.

Part of the issue is that some tests are not consistent with what we understand about child development. We should not be testing children in ways that are developmentally inappropriate. Additionally, the focus on testing has resulted in a lack of focus on helping students develop a firm foundation of basic skills and conceptual understanding, and more focus on rushing to more complicated skills. Seriously… many kids (mine included) don’t know how to write letters (“pencil strokes”)…they draw shapes that look like the letters and numbers. Some students (not just those who qualify for special education services)  also don’t understand basic number concepts, such as what number pairs make 10 and what it means to add 10 to any given number (they are still counting on their fingers). I try to fill in this gap, but I also need to teach (amongst other skills) how to compare fractions with different denominators, 2 digit x 2 digit multiplication, long division, and how to work multiple-step word problems. We are tasked with making sure that children who are not reading on grade level can write 4-paragraph personal narratives with complete sentences, organized thoughts, grade-appropriate spelling, and capitalization and punctuation. Like I said, I’m trying to fill in the gaps at the same time I am tasked with preparing students for these tests that are a challenge even for students performing at grade level. My heart goes out to these children.

When thinking about how our children approach testing, I believe it is important to communicate that the test is not a measure of our children as the amazing growing humans that they are. It does not reflect my son’s energy, creativity, amazing knowledge of dinosaurs, and loving heart. It does not reflect my daughter’s love of reading, compassion, clever wit, and creative spark. I spoke with my children during supper one day this week and discussed the purpose of the test as well as my expectations of them. My message to my children and my students is this: Do your best, but don’t stress. Teachers and administrators get anxious about these tests, but our children do not need to become anxious. They need to know that they are celebrated for all of who they are, not simply for how they perform on standardized tests.