I work for a publicly funded university. My office is small and windowless and has three computers shared between considerably more than three grad students. Whenever I feel cramped or frustrated I go outside and sit in the sun, watching all the undergrads go about their busy lives. I’m very much a people watcher, nostalgic for an easier life when my only stress was a chemistry exam. I enjoy living vicariously through them, spying on their academic lives for five minutes at a time. But this puts me directly in their paths, and some of these students are evangelical Christians who pick up on my curiosity, perhaps mistaking it for a search?
One young man in particular often uses the commons area right outside my building to spend time with young, impressionable students who perhaps are searching for something. That’s ok. He has every right to spread his religious beliefs…
…but he can’t have that conversation with me. I mean—literally—I’m not legally allowed to have that conversation with him.
You see, the wall of separation is not merely to prevent evangelical Christians from using state institutions as a platform for proselytizing; it also prevents me from using state institutions as a platform for telling them they’re wrong.
In my case, and from a legal perspective, I am the state. And, much like Christian or Muslim, et al, teachers can lose their jobs if they try to convert their students, I can lose my job if I attempt to shoot down students’ religious beliefs.
When it comes to my position at my university I am neither religious nor atheist.
I’ve purposely framed much of this post in a context that should be a sigh of relief for religious students who wish to use the university as a means of conversion. You, as a student, have every right to do that, but my right to tell you you’re wrong ends the moment I arrive on campus to perform my official duties. But there’s a downside; I legally cannot have these conversations with you, which means I am legally required to shoot down any attempts to convert me before they start. If you ask me if I’ve heard about your faith, please don’t be offended if I simply walk away. It’s not worth losing my job to tell you I don’t believe in god.
This obviously makes things very easy for me. The young man I mentioned above? Thankfully he took my decline with stride. On the other hand, however, I have had this conversation with him. And he knows I am not interested in his religion. But I didn’t tell him at the university; I told him when he knocked on my door trying to sell god.