"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Church and School

An article in the Guardian by Katherine Stewart entitled How Evangelicals Are Making Children Their Missionaries in Public Schools writes about the tactics of evangelical groups to skirt the Constitutionally prohibited teaching of religion.  These groups have used children to start sectarian prayer groups and other venues for the promotion of religious concepts and beliefs because the children are immune from censure or prosecution:

In a tactical sense, religious fundamentalists in America appear to have taken a page from the same book. The constitution and the law prohibits adults from, say, establishing ministries within public schools aimed at proselytizing to the children during school hours. But a growing number of religious activists have come to realize that it's technically legal if they get the kids to do their work for them.

The issue is based on a long-standing argument over what consists of religious activity.  Should it be completely outlawed, regardless whether it is held as part of extracurricular groups or part of formal instruction? Or should it be permitted if it is held as part of a clearly private, group function?  In a recent case, this issue went before the Supreme Court which ruled that extracurricular student religious groups are indeed legal and do not countermand the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 that the Equal Access Act is constitutional and that religious clubs can meet in secondary public schools if they are initiated and led by students. Religious clubs are also allowed only if the school offers other non-curricular clubs.  It is interesting to examine the basis on which the Court decided.  Writing for the majority, Justice O’Connor said:

there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free speech and Free Exercise clauses protect. We think that secondary school students are mature enough and are likely to understand that a school does not endorse or support student speech that it merely permits on a nondiscriminatory basis.”

Justice Stevens wrote the dissent:

“Can Congress really have intended to issue an order to every public high school in the Nation stating, in substance, that if you sponsor a chess club, a scuba diving club, or a French club—without having formal classes in those subjects—you must also open your doors to every religious, political, or social organization, no matter how controversial or distasteful its views may be? I think not….The Act, as construed by the majority, comes perilously close to an outright command to allow organized prayer…on school premises.”

I have always felt that a strict prohibition of any kind of religious teaching in public schools is a good thing.  It is easy to see how a teacher with strong religious convictions and a mission to evangelize could easily introduce her own ideas into the classroom.  Yet in a school district like mine where not only are there students from the major religions of the world, but from those religions’ subgroups.  There are Muslims who are either Sunni or Shiite; Hindus who either follow Krishna or Vishnu; Jews who are either Reformed, Conservative, or Orthodox. Any formal introduction of religion into the classroom is bound to either offend or go against the precepts and teachings of someone.  A public school teacher is an influential person in the eyes of still-unformed children, and she should not be allowed to use this trust to promote her own beliefs. 

The line between what is formal sectarian preaching and providing religious context to secular subjects is not entirely clear.  There can be no discussion of American history, for example, without talking about the influence of Puritans in the early days of the Republic or the role of religious principles behind the abolitionist sentiments of the Methodists and Quakers and Methodists.  European history would not be history at all without a reflection on the role of the Popes and the Catholic Church and their rivalries with Henry II, King John, and Henry VIII.  It is impossible to understand the great art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance without appreciating the Christian beliefs which motivated the artists.

Yet teachers, because of the Establishment Clause have to be extremely careful when talking about these events; and as a result tend to either gloss over them or eliminate them entirely.  Our society has become so litigious, that teachers are certain that some angry parent who is also a lawyer will come down hard on them.  Students are the worse off for this de jure and de facto prohibition.  If taught objectively, subjects such as Puritanism, the religious expressions of native America, the importance of Jews as ‘People of the Book’ who believe in the primacy of Scripture and for whom education is sacred; or even a comparison of the world’s major religions can be among the most important subjects taught in school. 

What is far less clear is the objection to extra-curricular activities.  How could such events possibly be construed as evangelism or proselytizing? The Guardian article suggests that these religious clubs may not be so innocent.  Although adults are prohibited from evangelizing in or at school, students themselves may do so with impunity. Once again, the issue is not very clear.  What is the problem if faith-driven students try to recruit others who are not?  If a student can talk about Jesus or Mohammed to his classmates on the playground in an attempt to influence him, how is a collection of student-believers any more threatening ?

The author minds most what she sees as the manipulation of the law – an insidious attempt to exploit young people to do their bidding.  As importantly she objects to the very sophisticated marketing efforts of some groups which use savvy advertising to promote these evangelical clubs and to recruit volunteers.  Yet this is America after all, and we all have the freedom to pursue our own interests and to operate on the margins of the law. The Every Student Every School (ESES) campaign is no different. Moreover many recruits come from evangelical families and are no means duped or forced into religious servitude by ESES. This is a patronizing assumption, no different from the one that insists that all girls who wear the hijab have been forced to do so by male adults. 

In any case, such matters, whether they occur on school property or not, are private; and if school-based evangelism is a powerful, well-organized movement, so is evangelism in the United States as a whole.

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