Religion is a very sticky subject because so many differing emotions and beliefs are involved. It would be good to remember that many of the world's wars began and were fought because of religion. Therefore, it is a good general rule for public school teachers to avoid the topic, if at all possible.
There are times, however, that you will be required by standards to teach world religions, especially if you are teaching social studies. The important thing to remember is to present world religions in an even manner, not making fun of or stereotyping any of them. Of course, the rules for dealing with religion depend on whether you teach in a public or a private school.
Because public schools are part of the government, public school teachers must faithfully follow the Constitution. This means that they may not “establish a…religion” through their classroom. In practice, this means that as a teacher, you must not impose your views and beliefs on your students. Federal courts have ruled that you may not even read a Bible silently during class, as this might sway a child's opinion about religion. Similarly, you cannot post or refer to the Ten Commandments in class.
What should you do if a student asks you a question about your religious beliefs? In general, your school district will probably advise you to refrain from discussing specific religious viewpoints in a classroom setting. But you can state your religious preference. For example, you could say, “I am a Baptist,” as long as you refrain from explaining the tenets of your faith to students.
Suppose you wear a cross or a Star of David on a necklace and a student asks you what the necklace represents. You should answer simply that it is a symbol of your religion. It would be inappropriate to give the student an explanation of why that symbol is part of your religion.
Student-led clubs that require teacher sponsors are another issue deserving mention. The courts have ruled that if a school has any club or extracurricular activity, then it can have a religious club. Since most schools require each club to have an adult sponsor, teachers will often be asked to sponsor such clubs. This is allowable as long as the club is student-led and the teacher is there to monitor the meetings and is not more actively involved.
Can I pray or participate in religious activities with students?
Yes, as long as the group does not meet during school time and you are not acting as a representative of the school. You need to be careful to meet these standards if you choose to become involved.
Private schools are subject to different rules. Many private schools are religious in orientation and follow the guidelines set by their administration. They only have to follow governmental rules concerning their attitudes toward religion if they receive federal aid. For example, the federal government might help a private Catholic school by buying its math books. This is allowable as long as the math books do not espouse a religious faith.