Apr 27 2006

Dover’s dominoes-6: Religion in schools

(See part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5.)

Contrary to what Bill O’Reilly and other hysterical people allege, there is no ‘war on Christianity’ or ‘war on Christians’ in the US. To say so is to just be silly and to disqualify yourself from being taken seriously. Nor is there is a blanket ban on teaching about god and religion in public schools. The latter assertion is based on a common misunderstanding about the US constitution and it is worth exploring. The relevant question is how you teach about god and religion and for what purposes. (Usual disclaimer whenever I am discussing the implications of rulings by the courts: I am not a lawyer but would love to play one on TV.)

The issue of whether religious beliefs can be taught in public schools is governed by the establishment clause of the First Amendment (which I have discussed before here) which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

A key interpretation of this clause was provided in 1947 by Justice Hugo Black in the case of Everson v. Board of Education (330 U.S. 1, 15-16 (1947) where he wrote: “The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.”

This was further clarified in Epperson vs. Arkansas 393 US 97 (1968) which said that the “First Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.” (Kitzmiller, p. 91)

This was further clarified in 1971 in the case Lemon v. Kurtzman (403 U.S. 602, 612-613 (1971)) which said that to pass constitutional muster, a law must pass all three of the following tests:

First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose;

Second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion;

Finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.”

In the Dover case, both sides agreed that only the first two prongs were relevant to that issue. The first prong of the Lemon test explains why IDC proponents are so anxious to have their beliefs accepted as part of science. If that can be achieved, then they can meet the first prong, since the teaching of science in a science class clearly has a secular purpose. Hence Judge Jones’ conclusion that IDC is not science must be seen as a serious blow to their ambitions.

Judge Jones also invoked another US Supreme Court precedent (County of Allegheny v. ACLU (1989)) which said that “School sponsorship of a religious message is impermissible because it sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherents ‘that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.’”

This is another reason why a secular public sphere is to be preferred. (See here for an earlier discussion of this issue.) If you have a public sphere (in schools or elsewhere) in which one particular religious view is favored or endorsed, then it sends a message that others who are not of this particular religious persuasion are not full members. The Allegheny case resulted in the following ‘endorsement test’ that could be applied to any laws. It says that there is a “prohibition against government endorsement of religion” and that it “preclude[s] government from conveying or attempting to convey a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred.” (Kitzmiller, p. 15)

As Judge Jones pointed out (p. 46) all these precedents imply that “[T]he Establishment Clause forbids not just the explicit teaching of religion, but any governmental action that endorses or has the primary purpose or effect of advancing religion.”

There would be no problem under these guidelines (as I read the law) about a philosophy course that examined, in a neutral way, the religious beliefs of people. There would be no problem in discussing in a history or social studies course the role that Christianity played in the American political process or the role that Islam played in the development of the middle east. In fact, it would be hard to keep religion out and teach those topics in a meaningful way.

A problem only arises if you use a course to promote religion in general or a specific religious point of view. Now we see more clearly why the El Tejon policies were problematic. It is not how a course is labeled (whether science or philosophy) that is at issue, it is how the course is taught. The El Tejon course was explicitly advocating a particular religious point of view, that of young Earth creationism. And the people at the Discovery Institute (rightly I think) saw that this would be easily ruled unconstitutional. And since the course dragged in IDC ideas as well, a negative ruling on this case would be interpreted as meaning that IDC ideas should not be allowed even in philosophy classes, which would be a huge public relations setback for them.

This is why they must have breathed a huge sigh of relief when the El Tejon school board decided to cancel the course.

Next in this series: Another domino falls in Ohio

POST SCRIPT: First amendment freedoms and the Simpsons

A survey of 1,000 Americans has found that just one in 1,000 people could name all five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment (religion, speech, press, assembly, petition the Government for redress of grievances.) while 22% of Americans could name all five Simpson characters.

I am shocked by this result. The Simpsons have been on TV for 17 years. Surely more than 22% should be able to name all five characters?

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