Since 1993, every January 16 has been declared Religious Freedom Day by Presidential proclamation. During last month’s Religious Freedom Day, the Department of Education unveiled new federal guidelines for religious liberty. The creation and implementation of these guidelines was championed by Gateways to Better Education, a nonprofit that works to create faith-friendly public schools where students and teachers understand their religious freedoms.
Eric Buehrer, founder and president of Gateways to Better Education, joins us on the latest episode of the Family Policy Matters radio show and podcast to share his story about pushing these guidelines through.
“It’s not that the guidelines have added any rights,” shares Buehrer. “These rights are already there. What it’s done is it clarified and made teachers more aware.”
This clarification was vital, Buehrer continues, because “the biggest problem is not overt hostility toward religion; it’s ignorance and fear. […] I love one of the statements that Secretary DeVoss said in releasing these guidelines. She said, ‘The notion of separation of church and state is not an invitation for the government to separate people from their faith.’”
Tune in to Family Policy Matters this week to hear Eric Buehrer go into detail about what specifically these new religious liberty guidelines say and how they will impact public education.
TRACI GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. The North Carolina Family Policy staff was invited to listen in on a briefing from President Trump’s White House staff recently. The call came on the day the President had declared as Religious Freedom Day, and was designed to unveil some new protections for our religious liberties. Well as I listened, I was excited to hear that Gateways to Better Education played a part in bringing about some of those changes. Gateways to Better Education has been active in our state in the past, instructing education personnel and individuals about their religious liberties in school, and NC Family has featured their work several times over the years.
Today we’re happy to have Eric Buehrer here with us! He is the founder and president of Gateways to Better Education. Eric Buehrer, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
ERIC BUEHRER: Thank you so much, it’s good to be with you.
TRACI GRIGGS: First of all, tell us Eric, about Gateways to Better Education. You all do a great job and at times seemed to be everywhere, but tell us how your organization came to be involved in changing policy that has the potential to affect students all over the nation.
ERIC BUEHRER: Well, as an organization our goal is to create more faith-friendly public schools where students understand they have the freedom to express themselves, and where teachers understand they have the freedom to teach about the Bible and Christianity. We show them how to do that all legally and appropriately within a public school setting, and it’s so much more than what many teachers and students think they can do. But you know, reaching out and asking the Department of Education to update these guidelines, it didn’t take a big organization to do that; it really was myself and a colleague of mine from California State University, Long Beach, Dr. Bill Jaynes. We sat down and we said, “Hey, it’s time to update these guidelines. Let’s send a letter to Secretary DeVoss and give her our recommendations for what should be done.” And it wasn’t because we had some big clout with them at all, but we just made the case. And so that’s an example of how any citizen can reach out to an elected official, to a department within their state or their government and say, “Hey this is wrong, this needs to be righted,” and it can be done. So I want to encourage your listeners that everyone can step up and do that sort of thing.
TRACI GRIGGS: I really appreciate you making that point because we tell people all the time here in North Carolina that they can make a huge difference when they speak to their representatives, that they listen. Well tell us, what happened then after you sent that letter, because that was back in 2017, right?
ERIC BUEHRER: Yes, this has been nearly three years in the making. And we sent the letter, and then what’ll happen—if your listeners do the same sort of thing with their elected officials and all—is you get this formal letter that comes back that says, “Thank you very much. We appreciate that and we’ll keep you posted if we ever want to do anything with this.” It’s like, “Okay, welcome to the bureaucracy.” So we just kept knocking on the door and we would call, we would email and we would send letters, just again, “Hey, how’s it going?” And then we happened to be out in DC for another event, made an appointment with a couple of their attorneys, and sat down with them. And that’s when we began to hear, “Hey, this is in process. We can’t talk about all the details but we can just let you know this is in process. We don’t know when it will be released.” And so they were very guarded about talking about it, and that was fine. And then we got the announcement—and it was very exciting—with just basically a week’s notice, “Hey, this is happening. We’d like you to come back and join the President and Secretary DeVoss in the White House, in the Oval Office, and catch a flight and get out here.” So it was, “Okay, we’re on it!”
TRACI GRIGGS: Okay, so what do these new federal guidelines do for us?
ERIC BUEHRER: Well, for instance, now there’s specifically wording that says, “Students may also speak to and attempt to persuade their peers about religious topics just as they would do regarding political topics.” It also gives them the opportunity to distribute literature to their classmates. So if they want to hand out invitations to a church event or they want to hand out some scriptures, or something like that, it’s perfectly legal for them to do. It’s not that the guidelines have added any rights; these rights are already there. What it’s done is it clarified and made teachers more aware of it. It’s also added for teachers a section on teaching about religion that had been removed, and they put it back in. This just clarifies that teachers, yes, they can teach all about the religious history, the impact of religion on society, teach about the Bible, and teach about holidays. As long as they’re not having catechism—having Sunday school—but they are teaching about it from an academic standpoint, they’re free to do that.
But a couple of other things also were very important, and this was new; one is they added an element of accountability. Previously, the guidelines simply said a school had to show that they had no policy restricting student prayer. Okay, well that’s a pretty low bar. I mean, “Yeah, we have no written policy; we don’t promote it and when we see it happen, we try to stop it, but we have no policy against it.” Now they’ve added, if a student wants to complain and issues a formal complaint to the school district, the district has to report that to the state. The state has to report that to the federal government. And so then now the Department of Education is collecting cases where there’s discrimination going on, and that’s a very important accountability portion.
Another thing that was added was they often would replace the word “religious content” with “religious perspective.” That, in other words, students have the right to include religious content in their homework, in their class discussions, in their oral presentations. Now they’ve changed that to, they have the right to their religious perspectives. At first I thought, well that’s interesting, I wonder why they made that change. But then as I began to think about it, in the last 10 years we’ve seen so much pressure on educators to say, “Oh, that religious perspective on gender identity, on same-sex marriage, on abortion, that’s bigoted, and so you can’t talk about that. That’s hate crime, that’s hate speech.” And this clearly says those religious perspectives cannot be squashed.
TRACI GRIGGS: So, when you mentioned that some of the things are not new and just needed to be clarified, I’m assuming you see this quite often that these types of things need to be clarified over and over again.
ERIC BUEHRER: They do, because the biggest problem is not overt hostility toward religion; it’s ignorance and fear. We work all over the country and we find that teachers just don’t know these things, and so they assume because of the so-called separation of church and state, that they have to make their classrooms religion-free zones, and they’re afraid that they’ll get in trouble if they allow something to happen or if they teach about anything, especially Christianity. And I love one of the statements that Secretary DeVoss said in releasing these guidelines, she said, “The notion of separation of church and state is not an invitation for the government to separate people from their faith.” And that was powerful because I think that’s how we’ve seen it in public schools is, “Okay, you leave your faith at your home and you come to public school and you pretend you’re an atheist while you’re here.” And she was very clear in saying, “No, that’s not the point. The point is you can express who you are; you can be who you are.” And so we need to help teachers and administrators and students understand this area of religious freedom that they have in a public school.
TRACI GRIGGS: I find your perspective interesting in that you believe that much of what happens that maybe infringes on our religious liberties is because people don’t know better. Teachers, even administrators, are not aware of what they’re truly allowed to do in schools or allow in schools. So that changes the way that we as a student, or a teacher or a parent, might approach a teacher or administrator that we feel is infringing on our child’s religious liberties, doesn’t it?
ERIC BUEHRER: It really does. And one of the things that we recommend is when a parent has a complaint about a religious discrimination issue in their school, instead of going as a blow torch to the school principal and say, “How dare this happened and I’m going to call a legal organization and they’re going to sue you.” Instead you go and you say, “I thought I should alert you to a potentially embarrassing problem.” Because administrators just don’t want trouble. And now you come as a friend and you’re saying, “Look, something just happened and I know if you were aware of it, you would not want this to happen.” And then you explain the issue and you explain—for instance, using the guidelines—here’s what students’ religious liberties are. So this shouldn’t have happened, and if this became public it would really cause a problem and I’d hate to see that happen. Now you’re a friend helping in this situation and that will get you further than going to the school board and making a big deal of it. Then everybody circles the wagons and they defend the school and you’re not a helper, you’re an agitator.
TRACI GRIGGS: Eric, why are guidelines like these necessary? I mean, doesn’t the Constitution and the Bill of Rights protect religious freedom for everyone?
ERIC BUEHRER: It really does. But what the guidelines have done is they’ve compiled court cases, and the legal history, to say, “Here’s how it gets applied in a classroom or in a school environment.” So the guidelines, it’s not that they’re adding anything new, but they’re bringing clarity based on case law and the history of all of this in our schools.
TRACI GRIGGS: What should someone do if they believe that their religious freedom rights have been violated? I know you mentioned that.
ERIC BUEHRER: Well, first of all, they need to contact the teacher. They need to contact the school administrator, because school districts are structured in a hierarchy of authority. If you go right to the school board, the first question they’re going to ask you is, “Did you talk to the teacher about this?” So you start with the teacher, go to the principal, then go to the superintendent. But if you feel like you need to have something written for you from a legal perspective, then organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom are a great organization. They can have one of their attorneys write a letter that simply clarifies what the law really says, and that it simply needs to be corrected. And that oftentimes is all that it takes to correct the situation.
TRACI GRIGGS: Great. Well, we’re just about out of time for this week, but before we go, where can our listeners go to learn more about religious liberty in public schools, and about your organization, Gateways to Better Education?
ERIC BUEHRER: We’ve set up a page on our website specifically for this. We’re calling it the “National Free To Speak Campaign.” If they go to gogateways.org/freetospeak, we have the guidelines there from the Department of Education, and we have our analysis of it. We have videos that teachers can show in class, that parents can show to their kids, that churches can show to their youth groups. We’ve got articles and we’ve also got a place where we want teachers to begin to post lesson plans on students’ religious liberties. We want this to be a hub for where teachers and parents and pastors can get information to empower their students about their free speech rights.
TRACI GRIGGS: Very interesting. Eric Buehrer, president of Gateways to Better Education, thank you for joining us on Family Policy Matters.
ERIC BUEHRER: Thank you so much. Great to be with you.