Saturday, October 6, 2012

Schools, faith and freedom

So who is protecting free expression of religion in public schools these days?

Here's one surprising answer - the ACLU.

Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, told journalists at the Religion Newswriters Association annual conference on Friday about efforts in defense of students:

  • Fighting a rosary ban in one school (it was banned because some gangs were using it as a symbol)
  • Defending a Native American students' right to have long hair as a religious expression
  • Arguing that a student had a right to sing "Awesome God" as an entry in a student talent show
  • Making sure students were allowed to use a Bible verse as their personal quote on a yearbook page

Of course, the ACLU also jumps in when schools try to impose a particular religious viewpoint on students.

Mach talked about a public school in Chesterfield County, South Carolina, that set aside a day devoted to "converting as many people to Christ as possible" in all-school assemblies. Students who chose not to attend the assemblies were given the "option" of serving time in detention.

Charles C. Haynes, one of the nation's top scholars on the First Amendment who directs the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., argued that the general consensus on how to handle religious expression in public schools has grown fairly strong, while agreeing with Mach's observation that while "the rules are clear, there are rampant and repeated abuses."

Haynes said that the 1962 U.S. Supreme Court decision banning organized prayer in public schools - a decision long vilified by conservatives actually "opened the door to more discussion of religion in schools than ever before." The guidelines that have emerged over the half-century since then have created space for thoughtful examination of various religious traditions and left open room for individual student expressions of religious beliefs.

But those are also areas that are still contested on the ground, as Mach suggested. Haynes said one of the on-going struggles is over when a student may give a religious expression to what is essentially a captive audience, as compared to a prayer group gathered for an extra-curricular activity. Some groups try to rig the rules to make sure their viewpoint - and only their viewpoint - is the one that is favored.

A second area is over how courses approach the Bible. "There are a lot of stealth laws to encourage Bible courses," Haynes said. While there is nothing wrong with treating the Bible as an academic subject, he contended, what some districts do is use a Bible course as a form of religious instruction - and that violates the notion that public schools should not favor a particular religious belief.

Looking more broadly at the First Amendment protections for freedom of religion, Haynes quoted James Madison's observation that the more diverse we are as a people, the more protection of freedom of religion for everyone there will be. When one faith is overwhelmingly dominant, it is easier to steamroll those who don't share that faith.

Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the American Catholic bishops, reminded the audience that "everyone is a minority somewhere." The ACLU's Mach echoed that, saying, "Virtually all religious groups have been in the minority at one time or in one place."

Arguments over religious expression are nothing new in U.S. history. Haynes noted that Alexander Hamilton tried to form what we would now call an early version of the Christian Coalition while Madison and Jefferson argued for a free marketplace of religious ideas.

Haynes praised the U.S. for have "the boldest free expression of religion of any country" yet cautioned that "the vitality of religious freedom depends on the minds and hearts of the American people."

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