by Amy Hatch March 3, 2010 6:00PM
An Iowa shop teacher who refused to allow a student to build a Wiccan altar in class has been placed on leave in a flap over religious freedom of expression.
Dale Halferty, who has taught industrial arts at Guthrie Center High School in Guthrie, Iowa, for three years, admits he forbade the student to construct an altar dedicated to the religion as part of a class assignment, The Des Moines Register reports.
Wicca is known as the modern form of witchcraft and typically involves the worship of multiple gods.
A 20-year veteran of the classroom, Halferty asserts that he was well within his rights to prevent the teen from building the structure, which he says poses a threat to the separation of church and state. He previously prevented another student from building a cross in the class.
“… This kid was practicing his religion during class time, and I don’t agree,” Halferty tells the Register. “I don’t want any religious symbols in the shop. We as Christians don’t get to have our say during school time, so why should he?”
The student in question reportedly told the teacher that he is, indeed, a practicing witch. Halferty tells the Register he initially permitted the student to build the altar, on the condition that the teen keep any religious materials out of the classroom. However, Halferty says, the boy continued to bring a book about witchcraft to class.
The teacher re-evaluated his decision to allow the altar’s construction and recanted his permission, deciding it “was wrong on every level.”
“It scares me. I’m a Christian,” Halferty tells the Register. “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.”
The school district begs to differ with Halferty, and points to several district policies — and some at the state and federal level — that prohibit religious discrimination, no matter what faith a student practices or how he or she chooses to express that faith in classroom assignments. Superintendent Steve Smith and Principal Garold Thomas have placed Halferty on leave while they confer with the district attorney.
The debate is causing some raw emotions among the 185 Guthrie Center students who say they do not want “witchcraft” practiced in their school. A petition circulated in late February stating as such garnered at least 70 signatures, the Register reports.
Ben Stone, the executive director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union, says this appears to be a clear-cut case of religious discrimination.
“The teacher may have good intentions. It’s a learning process,” Stone tells the Register. “But he needs to respect that students can exercise their religious viewpoints within the context of an assignment.”