By LEE ROOD • firstname.lastname@example.org • March 2, 2010
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.
Both Smith and Thomas said the incident has become emotional for the high school's 185 students: Almost 70 signed a petition late last week saying they didn't want witchcraft practiced at the school.
"I think it's fear based on some of the old ideas people had about witchcraft," Smith said. "It's fear and a lack of knowledge about the unknown."
Neither Smith nor school officials identified the student at the center of the controversy, and the boy's father declined a request made through Thomas to be interviewed.
Smith acknowledged that some people have expressed fears about satanism or sacrifices.
He said they too could use some educating: Though Wicca is often subject to such myths, it is nonviolent and based on a shared reverence for the Earth and all living things.
Halferty was sent home for the first time Friday and told to think about what he was doing.
He said he had no beef with the student or his project - until the student told him he was a practicing witch.
"I said, 'Ah, you're kidding, right?'"
When the student said he wasn't, Halferty told him he could work on his project - a table that would become the altar - provided he kept religious materials at home.
However, he said, the student kept returning to class with a book of witchcraft.
Halferty said he thought about it, and decided allowing the student to make the altar "was wrong on every level."
"It scares me. I'm a Christian," he said. "This witchcraft stuff - it's terrible for our kids. It takes kids away from what they know, and leads them to a dark and violent life. We spend millions of tax dollars trying to save kids from that."
But 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.
Stone said: "The teacher may have good intentions. It's a learning process. But he needs to respect that students can exercise their religious viewpoints within the context of an assignment."