A Banner Day for Yoga but Not Satan in School

satanology

Two cases dance on the fence between a protected expression of religion, and a government endorsement of religion. One has to do with a school’s inclusion of yoga practice in the curriculum. The other surrounds controversy that erupted from a fake “Satanology” student club. Both demonstrate how the courts take religious establishment on a case-by-case basis.

Previous cases that have worked through the legality of religious displays on government property by arguing context. In short, it’s fine to display Santa or a nativity if Rudolph, Happy Holidays, or a Menorah is nearby. Display a nativity with “Happy Birthday Jesus” and it won’t be there for long. The Ten Commandments are acceptable as a general moral document on a courthouse. To convey a specific religious idea like God is the source of wisdom for government, again, it’s probably coming down. With that said, if your locality allows religious displays that have religious intent, the real problem comes when you forbid the presence of a competing religious display near it.

The first case asks when the practice of yoga is religious in its context and goals versus when it’s a secular practice adopted by Americans in general. When a California public school was given a grant to teach yoga to its students, conservative Christians challenged it as a religious practice. Those concerned Christian parents lawyered up, and the evangelical Alliance Defending Freedom took up the case. The court decided the case with a peculiar ruling saying that in the case of the class, yoga was not religious secular in nature. However, at the same time, yoga is indeed a religious practice. Light is both particle and wave; General Tso’s chicken is both Chinese food, and yet definitely not Chinese. Like displays of the Ten Commandments on public property, the context matters. Where students were practicing yoga and the purpose of it had nothing to do with its various religious purposes found in numerous traditions. A practice’s historical association with religion does not mean that the practice is inherently religious.

In the second case, an activist requested to post a banner for the “Church of Satanology and Satanic Activism” club along a fence on school grounds. This followed an English teacher at Boca Raton Middle school who erected a 10 foot pentagram display next to a nativity scene in a local park. The reason was not to begin an actual club, but to test the school’s approval of banners for an organization promoting Christianity. The location where the “Satanology” banner was to be placed was a place where churches and synagogues had posted their banners for a fee paid to the district. As soon as Chaz Stevens, an atheist activist, proposed the banner, the school instituted a ban on all banners until further notice. After pressure from the Freedom from Religion Foundation to change the policy permanently, the Palm Beach County School District capitulated. The site for Satanology is part of a campaign by The Religious Liberty Project which “is an advocacy organization dedicated to protecting and promoting freedom of speech and religion, especially the separation of Church and State.” The use of Satan as a polarizing figure to raise awareness on church/state entanglement is not new, but it is a recent strategy by secularists to clarify separation and how it is applied through the 1st Amendment norm.

The issue that connects both of these cases has to do with the ramifications of insisting on the superiority of one religion or group of religions over other faith claims in any context that is a publicly-funded entity. Evangelical legal groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom hide their true intent of reintroducing Christianity as a distinctly superior, American religion behind language of religious freedom. Would they not also seek to defend the equality of other religions’ not-specifically-Christian concerns? The evidence of their case load is an emphatic “no.”

Whenever an activist group insists on the superiority of its religion rooted in whatever jurisprudence that argues for that superiority, it opens up an interpretation of the 1st Amendment as protecting religions through “equal regard” in which religion is not given any particular favored position in these decisions, but it is neither viewed with any disproportionate contempt. As the demographics of society are trending less religious, the idea that religion ought to have some favored status according to the 1st Amendment could fall out of favor. This means that when activists encourage the debate now, they open up their own interests to a deeper secularizing effect in the future. They could allow people to enjoy local favoritism towards the dominant religion while they still can, but outside organizations such as the Freedom from Religion Foundation and Alliance Defending Freedom are on opposing missions to change the ways that the 1st Amendment is interpreted everywhere. So, before that happens small town America, please enjoy your live nativity this Christmas before the giant Baphomet statue comes to peer over your shoulders to judge whether you’ve been bad or good this year.

Reading Religion and American Education

religions_and_american_educationIt’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment when religion and schooling turned from a dance into a WWE match between mortal foes. Most may point to the “Scopes Monkey Trial” where local laws prohibiting the teaching of evolution were publicly questioned. Others may go back a bit further to the Harvard Presidency of Charles Eliot who eliminated compulsory chapel and instituted sweeping curriculum changes that are today observed across universities worldwide. Or, one might go back to the heyday of the Enlightenment itself where reason and observation began to push God out of the way as the necessary agent to understand the world and humanity’s place in it.

Regardless of where you locate the start of this conflict, the disciplines of science and philosophy, educating for professions rather than vocations, and the emergence of a truly public, state-sponsored education system have always created friction with proponents of the old curriculum that put the Bible and Christian devotion at the center of the curriculum. Today the ACLU, Freedom from Religion Foundation, American Humanist Association, Americans United for Separation of Church and State have been central to maintaining a strict interpretation of non-establishment of any kind of religion in public schools against organizations that promote a weakening of that “wall” from groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, American Center for Law and JusticeChristian Educators Association International, and other groups like conservative denominations and political action committees. Activism on both side of the issue has been gaining strength and financial resources in the past few decades. The legal rulings have favored those who argue for a stronger interpretation of the 1st Amendment keeping religion and state funded schooling as distinct and unrelated as possible. Yet the conflict persists unabated.

News about this tension pour in daily. Just this week there have been reports of schools whose doctrines are at odds with LGBT student rights. The voucher program promoted by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos may create constitutional problems not only with entanglement of state and religion, but with how religion impacts equal protection regarding admissions policies. Recently, Donald Trump said before the Faith & Freedom Coalition, “Schools should not be a place that drive out faith and religion, but that should welcome faith and religion with wide, open, beautiful arms.” One questions what faith he is talking about and how schools should practice that welcome. It’s a relevant question given his audience of conservative, evangelical Christians. Surely they would not applaud the wide welcome of Hinduism and Islam on equal footing with their own idea of Christianity, would they?

Legal issues abound with these ideas. But at the center of all of this are the students, our kids. What is school here to do for them and for society? What are kids supposed to learn before they get to college? At what point do federal and state funding of not only the public school system, but of the public tertiary education system get entangled? Where do Constitutional amendments start to conflict with each other and what has happened in the courts to sort these complicated issues out?

Part of my “research reboot” this summer is to take a step back, catch up on the latest research, and to sort through some of the older texts with fresh eyes – especially those that I have only read in part while working on my dissertation. The first of these that I am going to work through is Religion & American Education: Rethinking a National Dilemma by Warren A. Nord. It was published in 1995 and while there have been titles since then which I will follow with, none of them go into the depth of this book from the time up until Nord wrote it. Sometimes you have to take a few steps back to put what comes next in context. My goal here is to offer a short post on each chapter in three sections which will sort of be a template for future books I go through.

  • The Gist – The main argument the author is making.
  • The Idea – I want to focus on one interesting idea that might be applicable more generally or might spark a research question.
  • The Relevance – This is the trickier part where I want to find a connection with what is in the text, especially since its older, with something happening today.

This is something I do through the typical research process anyway. I thought, hey, want not put it all here and if it is interesting to someone else, or if there are other ideas out there I have not seen in relation to it, sweet.

More to come.