Only Christians Should Apply? Ad Shows Public Schools Still Have Plenty to Learn

03/23/2015 06:35 pm ET | Updated May 23, 2015

For a few weeks, a phrase in a job advertisement for a rural Michigan schools superintendent went unnoticed despite a glaring problem. The school system, the ad noted, was looking for a leader with "a strong Christian background and philosophy."

Earlier this month, the state's ACLU leaders complained, and the school system removed that quality from selection criteria. The consultant who posted the ad for the tiny McBain Rural Agricultural School system apologized, saying it was his "poor judgment," not that of the school board, reported the Grand Rapids Press and

But this consultant, according to the same media report, had been a school's superintendent for roughly a decade, and spent 33 years in education. He should have known better. How could the school board miss the wording, which the consultant told a reporter was meant to show the area's conservative beliefs? I should be shocked, but I'm not, given the last few years I've spent traveling around the country researching a book about public schools' efforts to teach about the world's religions. In communities where people just assume everyone else is Christian, some schools systems act as if this is still the 1950s, when it was okay for teachers to lead students in prayer and Bible verses.

Yet, for more than a half century, the Supreme Court has repeatedly issued rulings reminding school officials and educators to keep a clear separation between church and state. Many school systems need the kind of wake-up call the tiny McBain district of 1,110 students just received. They need a reminder of where the lines must be drawn. Educators cannot promote one religion over another. Superintendent searches cannot restrict who applies based on religion. Religion, though, does not have to be taboo in school, despite many people's belief that public schools are devoid of all references to religion. Public schools can and do teach about religion as an academic subject, usually as a part of middle school and high school social studies or geography classes. In Modesto, Calif., all public high schools students are required to take a world religions course before graduating.

In the landmark Abington v. Schempp ruling in 1963 that booted prayer out of schools, Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark urged schools to give religion a place in schools -- a legal one. "It might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization," Clark wrote.

McBain likely won't repeat its error, but we will undoubtedly hear of other schools' missteps with religion. In rural Texas, during reporting for my book, I met a school's superintendent with Christian crosses in his office. Secretaries gave them to him as gifts. He saw no problem with such a display given he was reflecting his own values, which happened to match those of the surrounding Christian community. He wasn't that worried, either, about an elementary principal who led kindergartners in a Christian prayer at graduation. The town's mayor couldn't understand why outsiders complained about a Bible verse posted on the police department's website or why prayer at a public school graduation was a big deal.

In 2013, I returned to my high school alma mater, Van Buren, a rural northwest Ohio school system less than 50 miles from the Michigan border. My school system, like McBain, is in a tiny conservative Christian community. My brothers and I were the only Jews among less than 1,000 students. During my time there, in the 1970s to early 1980s, a woman from a church organization came into the elementary classrooms to teach weekly classes on Christianity. Pastors led religious assemblies and roamed the cafeteria inviting us to join them for Christian youth club meetings. When I returned two years ago, most of those activities were gone, but the principal thought it was okay to read scripture at the meeting of a student-led Bible club. The students, he said, had asked him to participate. What the principal missed was the symbolism of a school administrator reading scripture in front of students. Personally, he can be as spiritual as he wants, but at school, he should remain neutral on religion.

In America, we are not all Christian. We are Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, atheists, secular humanists, and so much more. Public schools should be a place to learn about many faiths instead of just one. They should be a place where any of us, regardless of religion or lack thereof, would feel comfortable as a student, teacher, parent, or leader. The damage in McBain has been done. Any non-Christian candidate likely will not want to apply. That's too bad. The best lesson for the community's residents might be to get a schools superintendent who isn't just like them.