So, doesn’t this send the message that you can talk about, and analyze, any religion… except Christianity?
The Herald—Everett, WA
Bible essay stirs trouble for teacher
By Melissa Slager
The Everett Herald
LAKE STEVENS - The nature of God will no longer be part of an atheist teacher's American literature class at Lake Stevens High School.
Gary McDonald, 60, said he had no intention of swaying students' religious beliefs during a lesson last month.
"I regret in the strongest terms the trouble that I have caused," McDonald said on Tuesday. The goal, he said, was to get students to think.
The school's principal gave McDonald a verbal reprimand after one student's parents complained he was denigrating their Christianity.
Here are two parts of a class assignment on creation myths that stirred controversy in a Lake Stevens High School teacher's American literature class:
The first asked students to identify how an Iroquois story of creation and the biblical account of Genesis serve the four functions of mythology.
The second is this handout titled "The Problem of Evil" that the teacher gave students to read.
"I would like to convey my deepest regret regarding the assignment given by Mr. McDonald," Superintendent David Burgess wrote in a letter last week to the student's parents. "I too was offended."
On Jan. 31, McDonald gave the class, which consisted of juniors and seniors taking it as an elective, an assignment to read an Iroquois tale of creation, "The World on the Turtle's Back," in the course textbook.
The textbook's teacher edition suggests having students compare the creation myth with other creation accounts, as well as discuss their own concepts of good and evil.
McDonald used the textbook's worksheet. On it, students were to give examples of how the Iroquois tale reflects four functions of myth - to instill awe, explain the world, support customs and guide people.
But he adapted the form, and had the class do the same for the biblical account of creation in Genesis. He provided a paraphrase of the story.
After they completed that assignment, he gave them another handout, titled "The Problem With Evil."
That handout, which was not part of the textbook's materials, asked questions such as how evil could exist if God is good and all-powerful.
Junior Lanae Olsen, 17, said it all went too far.
The assignment was offensive to her Christian beliefs, and came one day after McDonald told the class he was atheist.
"I just don't think it had a lot to do with the literature," Olsen said. "You can learn about religion but not in that way, by putting it down."
She has since switched to another class taught by a different teacher.
McDonald said he's given the assignment this way since he first started teaching at the high school nearly seven years ago.
This is the first complaint, he said.
"I assured all of the kids that it was not my intention to teach religion or endorse any religion. I made it very clear," he said.
As a result of the complaint, Principal Ken Collins spoke with McDonald and ordered him to remove the additional materials.
The teacher's additions are more appropriate to a college-level philosophy course than a high school literature lesson, said Arlene Hulten, a school district spokeswoman.
The lesson was lost, she said.
"It is appropriate for students to discuss their own beliefs on creation in a compare-and-contrast exercise," she said. "However, it was inappropriate for the teacher to share his personal beliefs, as it had a direct influence on the interpretation of the lesson."
In general, schools can teach about faith traditions - say, as part of a course in comparative world religions - but not advocate or oppose particular beliefs.
"From a constitutional perspective, schools can't teach the truth or falsity of religious belief, and atheism would fall in that parameter," said Alan Brownstein, a constitutional law expert at the University of California at Davis' School of Law.
"If this person was trying to influence children's religious beliefs in the classroom by telling them what is true or not true, that is constitutionally problematic."
McDonald said he only shared his beliefs after a student asked him about his faith. The boy had noticed that McDonald skips "under God" when reciting the pledge of allegiance.
McDonald, who was raised by a Jewish mother and Southern Methodist father, said his intentions were misunderstood.
Religion played an important role in early American literature, he said. The goal was to prepare students for the study of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," based on the Salem witch trials.
Ken and Claire Olsen are proud of their daughter.
"She made a stand," Claire Olsen said. She doesn't expect public schools to teach or cater to one religion over another.
"I just know that this was a little over the edge," she said.
Reporter Melissa Slager: 425-339-3465 or email@example.com