Over 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court in Abington v. Schempp (1963) decided eight to one that school-sponsored Bible reading was unconstitutional. Madalyn Murray O’Hair was the mother of a plaintiff in a similar case that was consolidated with Schempp. (O’Hair founded American Atheists, also in 1963. Above, see a photo of O’Hair, who Life magazine called “the most hated woman in America” a year later.)
But the battle continues
While it may be a day to celebrate a long-standing legal precedent, we can’t rest on our laurels. Consider the “Mississippi Student Religious Liberties Act of 2013” (SB 2633), also focused on religion in public schools. The title alone sounds pretty good—who would stand in the way of religious liberty?
The bill is full of equality language. Religious and secular viewpoints must be treated “in the same manner,” religious groups must be “given the same access,” a school district policy should be such that it “neither favors nor disfavors” religious groups, and so on. The governor’s press release said that the law “protects students from being discriminated against in a public school.” If you hate discrimination and you’re a fan of the First Amendment, what’s not to like?
But who decides what is religious? The law gives no test, so apparently the student decides. Religion in this domain is what each student tells you it is.
This puts a lot of power into questionable hands. Consider the 2011 case from Austria in which a self-described Pastafarian (member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) won the right to wear his spaghetti strainer—religious headgear, he claimed—for his driver’s license photo. Most of us can remember classmates who would delight in seeing how far they could push a rule like this. Remember that this law would apply to high school students. Might they wear a colander or a swastika (which actually is a religious symbol) or a necklace of an extended middle finger, justifying any of these as religious expression?
The law also permits religious speech from students at athletic events and in announcements made at the beginning of the school day. This is not allowed for school staff because, as government employees, their speech would be sanctioned by the government. But why imagine that putting it in the mouth of a student avoids this problem? Every student listening is obliged by law to be at school. They’re captive to all religious messages in the morning announcements.
And remember the Colander Problem: “religion” is in the eyes of student. Aside from vulgar language and time limits, the student has the talking stick. The same public forum that allows a Christian to talk about why Jesus is his savior allows the class jester to explain how Druidism or Satanism or polyamory turned his life around. Students can talk to their captive audience about the worldview of Mormonism or Wicca or Islam or (gasp!) atheism. Can the Christian parent want their child to be forced to sit through these daily messages?
Perhaps the biggest failing in this kind of “religious liberty” is the bad light it shines on Christianity. Christian churches are already permitted, and they’re subsidized by tax-free status. Christians can already preach in the public square and hand out leaflets on street corners. But apparently that’s not enough. According to the government of Mississippi, Christianity is too weak to compete in the marketplace of ideas and needs a little boost. Home and church aren’t sufficient, and public schools need to be enlisted to fight the good fight. Is it just me who sees this as a pathetic admission of the weakness of the Christian message?
How this could play out
Consider other examples of Christian excesses from recent years. In 2007, Seattle-Tacoma airport was decorated for Christmas in a religion-free way after fights the previous year over what religious worldviews would be on display.
Don’t forget the city of Santa Monica, which used a lottery to apportion permission to set up religious displays on public property. When 18 of 21 spots went to atheist and freethought groups for Christmas 2011, Christians belatedly realized that a “let a thousand flowers bloom” policy doesn’t always work out well. (I explored the “War on Christmas” more here.)
Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re seeing the pendulum in Mississippi pushed to such an extreme that this law will swing back to smack the legislature—yet. In fact, the Christian extremists in that state have been emboldened so that this year they passed the “Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act” (HB 1523), which provides protection for the Kim Davises and anti-gay bakers in that state to discriminate based on their “religious belief[s] or moral conviction[s].”
I wonder if a Jewish grocery cashier could put up a “Kosher food only at this register” sign or if a Muslim shopkeeper could refuse to serve infidels.
The trend (at least in Mississippi) is in the wrong direction, but I still anticipate that the same kind of reversal we’ve seen with religious displays at Christmas will happen here.
You might object that we still have the First Amendment, so we already have a backstop for any excess that gets past this law. But then why have it? Where this law duplicates the First Amendment, it’s redundant, and where it expands religious freedom, it’s illegal. It’s a solution trying to invent a problem.
But many of you will have already seen the actual purpose of this law. In these days where Christianity is hijacked for the benefit of politicians, the value of the Student Religious Liberties Act is simple posturing. Mississippi politicians, who passed the bill almost unanimously, have thumbed their noses at the Supreme Court and can now brag to voters about their brave support for Jesus.
I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people
which declared that their legislature should “make no law
respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,”
thus building a wall of separation between church and State.
— Thomas Jefferson (letter to Danbury Baptist Assoc., 1802)
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 6/17/13.)
Photo credit: Wikipedia