Guthrie Center, Ia. – A high school senior’s desire to build a Wiccan altar in shop class has forced a community debate about free expression.
Dale Halferty, who has taught industrial arts at Guthrie Center High School for three years, was placed on paid leave Monday after he acknowledged to district officials that he told the student he could not build the altar in class.
“This is not a beef that I have with the district. It’s not me against them,” said Halferty, who has been an educator for much of the past 20 years. “But this kid was practicing his religion during class time, and I don’t agree.”
Halferty said he previously told another student he could not build a cross in shop class because he believes in the separation of church and state. “I don’t want any religious symbols in the shop,” he said.
His viewpoint: “We as Christians don’t get to have our say during school time, so why should he?”
School officials say Christians actually do get to express themselves in the same way.
More than one school policy, as well as state and federal law, prohibit discrimination against students who express religious beliefs through school assignments.
Superintendent Steve Smith and Principal Garold Thomas said they placed Halferty on leave while they conferred with the school’s attorney to decide what to do.
Smith said school policies prohibit teachers from denying students access to varying points of view without just cause, and prohibit employees from denying students participation in activities on the grounds of race or religion.
The U.S. Department of Education has written guidelines for public school districts to ensure students’ First Amendment rights are protected.
Ben Stone, executive director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, said the clash appears to be a simple case of religious discrimination. All students, he said, have the right to religious freedom and to be treated equally in school.
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