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Keep God out of public schools: There are no heroes in Texas student's "is God real?" assignment controversy

A student says her teacher tried to get her to renounce her religion—how did this assignment even happen?


Mary Elizabeth Williams
October 30, 2015 12:09AM (UTC)

The headline is certainly affirming for those patriotic Judeo Christian Americans among us. As the Daily News puts it: "Brave girl stands up against Texas teacher who told students God is not real." 

On Tuesday, twelve year-old Jordan Wooley of West Memorial Junior High in Katy, Texas, delivered a shocking message to her local school board and to the media. "Today I was given an assignment in school that questioned my faith and told me that God was not real," she said. "We were asked to take a poll to say whether God is fact, opinion or a myth." Wooley's class was given an assignment to identify "factual claims, commonplace assertions and opinions," one of which was "God is real."

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The girl claims she "said it was fact or opinion… Based on my religion and based on what I think and believe, I do not think it was a commonplace assertion." But she claims the teacher said her answers were wrong and that she had to admit God isn't real. She said the teacher told students who asked if they could write what they believe for their answer, "You can if you want to get the problem wrong... You'll fail the paper if you do." And her mother says, "The teacher berated and bullied the children in class."

The school district has issued a statement that the assignment was "designed to encourage critical thinking skills and dialogue" and not to "question or challenge any student's religious beliefs," but that "This does not excuse the fact that this ungraded activity was ill-conceived and because of that, its intent had been misconstrued."

And on Wednesday, Superintendent Alton Frailey called the assignment "Highly inappropriate, has not been used again, will not be used. In fact, it's literally in the trash can." Governor Greg Abbott, meanwhile, tweeted out, "I'm proud of this 7th grader's unyielding commitment to God. She's Texas tough."

Naturally, conservative sites have been eating this up, with Breitbart, for example, calling it a tale of a girl "not willing to renounce her faith in God."

Yet other accounts of what happened conflict with Wooley's. As the Houston Chronicle's Emily Foxhall reports, the teacher is a Christian. And Superintendent Frailey says that a school investigation found "Students were neither forced to deny God nor threatened with a lower or a failing grade if they did not" and that "The activity did not result in any arguments in the classroom."

Listen, the day the existence or non-existence of God is ever definitively reconciled in a seventh classroom, we really have raced to the top. But aside from the fact that Wooley's version of what went down has been called into question and whether she was truly called to "renounce her faith," the fact remains that God doesn't belong on a school assignment in the first place. Whatever provocative philosophical cans of worms you as a teacher may want to open on your middle schoolers, just don't do it. It's not about getting a yes or no answer to the question of God; it's about doing the appropriate thing and leaving God outside the school in the first place. The assignment was not heretical; it was just dumb. And those aren't opinions. They're facts.

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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