Bible Reading in Schools: Still Illegal After Half a Century

Bible Reading in Schools: Still Illegal After Half a Century August 15, 2016

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?

Pandora’s box

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?

The place for “Mormons and Catholics and atheists will broil in hell at 425° Fahrenheit” is in church, not the public school.

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.

Bottom line

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

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  • RichardSRussell

    Where this law … expands religious freedom, it’s illegal.

    Only if you buy into the right-wing definition of “religious freedom” as meaning the unchecked ability to screw people whose religion you disapprove of.

  • Uzza

    “religious liberty” is an oxymoron. You’ve either got liberty, or you don’t. It doesn’t come in different flavors.

    • adam

      Yep, you’ve either got the right to kill gays as the bible states or you dont.

      • Uzza

        Yep, “you’ve either got the right to kill gays as the bible states or you dont.”

  • MNb

    “the actual purpose of this law”
    Of course. I’m confident that some fanatical American christians will screw it up.

  • Max Doubt

    “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.”

    Last week our local group, the Peoria Secular Humanist Society, along with the FFRF and our local park district, re-dedicated the bronze Robert Green Ingersoll statue that has stood in one of our parks for over 100 years. At the dedication ceremony I had the pleasure of meeting James McCollum. He was the plaintiff, or actually his mother was since James was just a school kid at the time, in the McCollum vs Board of Education case from 1947. That was a landmark Supreme Court case that removed religious education programs from public schools. But here we are almost 70 years later, and those persistently inconsiderate Christians still can’t keep their hands off our kids.

    Note to Christians: Perpetuating your religion requires illegality, dishonesty, and child predation. You don’t get the luxury of demanding everyone respect your beliefs. Your beliefs are bullshit and your methods are despicable. You earn every bit of mockery and derision you receive.

    • The angle that I like to push is: What does it say about Christian beliefs that they must shanghai schools into pushing them? Can’t you just win the intellectual argument with a level playing field?

      • adam

        “Can’t you just win the intellectual argument with a level playing field?”

        Of course not:

  • raylampert

    What sort of “freedom” restricts an individual’s choices? Saying “I can’t do that, it’s against my religion” is the exact opposite of freedom. And saying “YOU can’t do that because it’s against MY religion” is an imposition.

    When people claim that their beliefs should exempt them from the laws that bind everybody else, that’s not freedom; that’s the very definition of privilege.

    • T-Paine

      Right. Many Christians don’t want just government protection but also government sponsorship.

  • Sophia Sadek

    I had a big disagreement with a fellow atheist over the institution of silent meditation as a substitute for open prayer. I never felt that it infringed on my rights as an atheist student. The teacher could plainly see that I did not participate, but she did not treat me differently as a result. I suppose a more zealous teacher might take advantage of such a scenario to deny equal treatment to an atheist child.

    • MNb

      For me, an atheist who’s never been in the closet, it always has been the same. So I never cease to be amazed by this kind of legislature.
      It’s obvious to me though that such laws only can have one explanation: American christians are not capable of tolerance towards other views. If they respected the rights of un- and otherbelievers laws regulating religious freedom weren’t necessary.

      • Sophia Sadek

        Christianity was founded on intolerance towards all other religions, especially heterodox Christians.

  • Michael Neville

    Why do “religious freedoms” need protecting in Mississippi? Are hordes of atheists going from school to school, ripping cross necklaces from students’ throats and screaming: “You don’t really believe!”? Are Christians prevented from praying or going to church? Are Bibles being burned in the town squares? Or is this just another attempt to enforce Christian privilege?

  • Uzza

    !? Why does the link take you to

    Senate Bill 2633
    correct link, to a bill with the same #, is here

    • I was wondering if they ever recycled the bill numbers. Thanks for the updated link.

  • Rudy R

    Christianity is too weak to compete in the marketplace of ideas and needs a little boost.

    Not only does Christianity to weak and needs a boost in school, it needs a boost in enforcing religious values by legislating Christian dogmas. Religious morals aren’t sufficiently undeniable for self-imposed obedience and must be imposed by law and order.

  • Aegis

    As someone whose life was turned around by polyamory, I’m in full agreement with this. That shit is not a classroom topic except possibly as a case study in a philosophy/ethics class discussion.