Not so strange bedfellows

firstamendmentRecently we’ve discussed the penchant of reporters to talk politics in religion stories. A good example of that reliance comes the New York Times‘ Linda “I am the Alpha and Omega of all things factual” Greenhouse. Published in Sunday’s paper, she anticipated Monday’s Supreme Court hearing on a free speech case.

Greenhouse, who is a very talented writer, sums up the background of the case well:

On the surface, Joseph Frederick’s dispute with his principal, Deborah Morse, at the Juneau-Douglas High School in Alaska five years ago appeared to have little if anything to do with religion — or perhaps with much of anything beyond a bored senior’s attitude and a harried administrator’s impatience.

As the Olympic torch was carried through the streets of Juneau on its way to the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City, students were allowed to leave the school grounds to watch. The school band and cheerleaders performed. With television cameras focused on the scene, Mr. Frederick and some friends unfurled a 14-foot-long banner with the inscription: “Bong Hits 4 Jesus.”

The student, who was suspended, didn’t consider it religious expression but obviously the case may be decided in a way that influences religious expression. So a number of groups have gotten involved. This is very interesting and newsworthy — and Greenhouse gets into that later on. But note her lede:

A Supreme Court case about the free-speech rights of high school students, to be argued on Monday, has opened an unexpected fissure between the Bush administration and its usual allies on the religious right.

The Bush administration entered the case on the side of the principal and Greenhouse is surprised that the religious folks are on the side of free religious expression. This isn’t a terribly well-known case for a general audience. Why is the political angle more interesting than how the case came to be viewed as a religious expression one? I also suspect that the arguments that united the various free speech and religious folks might have been a better way to begin.

As always, Greenhouse does a nice job of summarizing some previous relevant decisions. But she says the way the sides are lining up is most interesting:

While it is hardly surprising to find the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Coalition Against Censorship on Mr. Frederick’s side, it is the array of briefs from organizations that litigate and speak on behalf of the religious right that has lifted Morse v. Frederick out of the realm of the ordinary.

The groups include the American Center for Law and Justice, founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson; the Christian Legal Society; the Alliance Defense Fund, an organization based in Arizona that describes its mission as “defending the right to hear and speak the Truth”; the Rutherford Institute, which has participated in many religion cases before the court; and Liberty Legal Institute, a nonprofit law firm “dedicated to the preservation of First Amendment rights and religious freedom.”

I guess I’m not that surprised. That Bush would be on the side of the manthe school authorities is not the most shocking thing in the world but it is somewhat surprising. Fleshing out the administration’s views would have been worthwhile. What isn’t surprising is that folks who work for free religious expression would be on the side of a student with dissident views. First Amendment cases always have far-reaching consequences and this would be no exception.

I don’t mean to overstate things — there is always something interesting about the bedfellows for each side in a Supreme Court case. But I’m not sure it’s shocking to find all these Christians fellows in this bed.

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  • Michael

    I thought it was an odd lede too, although the case isn’t about religious expression. The basic case has nothing to do with religious speech or religious expression. The larger question, however, has an impact on high school students who are giving religious viewpoints that are also political.

    Anytime the ACLU and the ACLJ are on the same side it is a curiousity, especially when the unerlying case isn’t about religion. I’m not sure the fact that everyone opposes the Bush administration is terribly interesting, however, because as you point out, the government is “the man” and can oppress the speech of both stoners and Christians.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “Why is the political angle more interesting than how the case came to be viewed as a religious expression one?”

    Because inside the Beltway, (and much of the media that serves them) politics IS the Religion, and it is an all encompassing one. The efforts of the 60′s radicals to make EVERYTHING a political act have reached such absurd heights that “paper or plastic” is a political decision, and if you drink “fair trade coffee”, coffee bought at market prices, or even (my personal favorite) Contra Cafe, is seen as a form of political expression, and worthyness. EVERYTHING is politics, and politics is EVERYTHING.

    (Which is one of the reasons I don’t live or work there, I had the chance but I know my weaknesses and I knew that if I took it I would loose my family and my soul.)

    But in any case, it is only natural that people who worship at the altar (dare I say idol?) of politics and political angles would put the political angle first.

    Simple, probably unconscious, matter of priorities.

  • Stephen A.

    It actually never occurred to me that this would be a religious speech issue. Clearly, this is an issue dealing with the speech of minors and the rights of schools to impose order and discipline on their charges. I would think the Justices, as well as the religious groups noted here, would narrow that scope and understand that this had nothing to do with religion other than the fact that the child’s grafitti chose to invoke it for maximum affect. It simply served to further highlight his act of juvenile defiance.

  • Mattk

    When I first heard about this case several years ago I was outraged (okay, not really. Just slightly annoyed.) that the school punished the student. As I recal he was 18, therefore an adult, off of school grounds, and saying something absurdly funny. He says now that the slogan didn’t mean anything but when I read it I thought it had something to do with the silly arguments potheads make in favor of legalizing maryjane. Maybe it was a rastafarian argment. And I thought then that the Religious Right (whoever they are.) and the civil libertarians would both probably side with frederick. I’m glad to read that they have.

    But I don’t really see this as a political story. There is always tension between the government and Christian people. Even when Christians are the president’s (or emperor’s) biggest supporters.

  • Michael

    I would think the Justices, as well as the religious groups noted here, would narrow that scope and understand that this had nothing to do with religion other than the fact that the child’s grafitti chose to invoke it for maximum affect.

    The line between “Bong Hits for Jesus” and “I will not accept what God has condemned,” and “Homosexuality is shameful. Romans 1:27″ is a thin one when it comes to grafitti used for maximum effect. That’s why the ACLU and ALCJ are in this together

  • Eli

    If the teaching of ID/evolution wasn’t such a hot topic these days I’m not sure the religious right would be so adamant in backing the notion of making sure the bong was to be passed to Jesus in the first place. If stoners, hypothetically speaking, were in the process of seriously attacking some of the root tenets of Christianity then perhaps the religious right would be offended by the notion of Jesus even doing bong hits. No?

    But I also think it’s a little shocking that the Bush Admin came down as they did and would somewhat agree with Mr. Destro’s take from the article:

    Having worked closely with Republican administrations for years, Mr. Destro said he was hard pressed to understand the administration’s position. “My guess is they just hadn’t thought it through,” he said in an interview. “To the people who put them in office, they are making an incoherent statement.”

    Even more than this, though, I would argue that context is everything and that the coherence is found in the basic priorities of the Bush Administration. While religious expression in schools would ostensibly be a priority to the Administration, it seems apparent that a further limitation on civil liberties, in line with those of the Homeland Security Act, take priority over making sure Jesus had the right to get passed the bong in the first place.

  • Deborah

    USA Today actually covered this case a couple of weeks back as part of a student freedom of speech/curtailing school violence article. So there are apparently lots of angles.

  • Dennis Colby

    In a Slate article covering the oral arguments today, Dahlia Lithwick doesn’t really play up the religion angle; she presents the dilemma before the court as between giving schools sweeping new powers or opening the door to students disrupting lessons as much as possible.

    I thought Greenhouse’s article was a fair one, although the lede suggested there was more division than I think there is; I don’t know that the Christian groups supporting the student are taking the administration’s backing of the school too personally.

    As an aside, I can’t help but think everyone would have a much easier time with this case if (a) the student weren’t seeking monetary damages from the principle and (b) the student had chosen to express himself with a slogan even marginally less moronic.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    It’s the easy angle for reporters to take, even easier for headline writers and editors. It seems unthinkable that the ACLU and conservative Christians could hold hands in unity. But it happens all the time.
    Brad A. Greenberg
    Los Angeles Daily News
    Religion reporter

  • Chris Bolinger

    Larry, I lived just outside the Beltway for 12 years. You made the right move (or, actually, decision not to move).