14 April 2011

On religion in schools

As we move through the season of Lent, the opportunity once again arises for news organizations to find absurd stories about religion in schools. This seems to happen every year. Every year, there is a story that springs up about how Christmas trees have to be called "holiday trees" and schools have forbidden the Easter Bunny from showing up.

This spring, the story comes to us from Seattle, where a teen (who has so far chosen to remain anonymous) called a radio station and claimed that she volunteers at an elementary school (also unnamed). Ok, this doesn't seem like a big deal. She went on to explain that she wanted to give kids Easter eggs full of candy, but was told (eventually) that she had to call them "Spring Spheres" (details here.)

Already, the story points out, the Facepagespace and twitter-sphere are blowing up with the story.(Never mind that Seattle Public Schools can't even figure out if the story is true)  It's shown up twice in my news feed. People are outraged. They, once again, scream about being offended and wonder "what ever happened to freedom of religion"? (well, I don't know that they scream, all I know is that their comments seem angry.)

So, the civics teacher in yours truly is going to provide a basic primer on the First Amendment, particularly the bit about Congress and religion. To whit: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof".

Now, whether you like it or not, the Judicial Branch of the government gets to interpret laws. They also hear cases about violations of Constitutional law, the highest law in the land. So, as this applies to religion in schools, they hear cases where students' rights have been violated.

The benchmark for religion in school cases is Engel v. Vitale, which ruled that schools could not broadcast Christian prayer over the loudspeakers, even if students were allowed to "opt out". The court determined that promotion of a religion, even in a vague nature such as the case's "Almighty God" is a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Ok, so let's move forward, shall we? Schools recognize and abide by the Vitale ruling. Some principals have become over-zealous in enforcement, but I tend to agree with them that it is better to be safe than sorry. I would rather offend an entire school worth of Christian parents than subject one child of another faith to the implicit endorsement of religion by the school.

If people want to pray on their own time, that is their business, but no tax dollars should be used to endorse prayer, especially at a place where children are required by law to attend. In fact, endorsing religion, (which is what calling them "Easter Eggs" is) in a place children are required to learn sounds an awful lot like the religious schools run by our old friends the Taliban.  

(this is the point where I mention that I am a believing and pretty faithful Christian. I attend church most Sundays, and when I finish this, I'm going to go upstairs for a Lenten devotional)

In most of the stories we read about, Christians get all up in arms that their traditions, which already dominate the culture in many parts of the nation, are being forced out of schools. Why are they so upset? If they really think their children need to be exposed to only their belief systems, they should pay to send those children to private, Christian schools. Imagine the outcry from these same people if schools forced classes to stop daily for Muslim prayer, so that Muslim students could be allowed to pray. I can see the headlines now. Or what might happen if the school were to intone a Jewish call to prayer during lunch? 

Conservative Christians need to begin to understand that this nation is a nation of many beliefs, and that the government cannot, and should not, endorse any of them. They can be as offended as they want to be when schools stop calling Easter Eggs "Easter Eggs" and put up holiday trees, but that's the way the rules are, and they should learn to play by the rules.

As a total aside at the end of this post; I'm also tired of Christians acting like something should stop because they are offended by it. I know a lot of vegans who are offended you eat meat. Muslims are offended that Western women don't cover their faces. I'm offended that stupid people have "How's that hope and change workin' out for ya?" bumper stickers on their cars. All of these people have every right to be offended, but it's patently ridiculous to think that government policies should change because they offend you.

p.s. On Facepage-twitterspace, this discussion often leads down a road to absurd claim town. So let me as a nine-year veteran of public schools debunk most of them:
Absurd Claim 1: Teachers can't even talk about religion, kids have to bring it up
False. I have an entire unit based on world religions. I can talk all I want, but cannot endorse one religion over the others
AC2: Teachers can't even read a Bible in their own room.
False. Teachers are free to read what they want. Most English books even contain Bible passages as literature
AC3: Schools aren't allowed to have any religious symbolism.
False. Schools can have displays of religious items, but must explain them in a educational setting

And now, to end the post, a video about the way my hometown deals with Christmas lights on government property:

Other claims or questions about religion in the public schools? Questions in the comments will be answered!

1 comment:

  1. Is it ok to talk about the T-Rex that saved Jesus from King Herod? Even as an atheist that story would be pretty amusing to teach kids about.