About Me

My photo
This blog is the work of an educated civilian, not of an expert in the fields discussed.

Monday, May 21, 2012

The Good News Club: The Christian's Right's Stealth Assault On America's Children

Ross Douthat is repeatedly ridiculed in blogs. My ultimate concern is that this important issue is given (by the NYT yet) to such a flawed source. Michelle Goldberg and Sarah Posner and others provide voices from the left. We need smarter voices from the right, including realizing careful public statements that does not merely give the full expression of a politician's views is not -- per a recent blog by him -- "lying." Marci Hamilton, who is conservative on various issues, underlines the possibly complexity here.*

Katherine Stewart's book might be most copacetic to the left, but her discussions of textbook wars in Texas (its market big enough to influence the nation) shows that the concerns have a broad reach. I myself know a public school teacher who (benighted soul) is pretty conservative but would not take some Rick Santorum position on all these issues. Also, forgive me for the long excerpt, her bottom line is moderate: 
Again, if we are talking about elementary schools, I would exclude religion as a category, just as we exclude politics as a category. It used to be legal to exclude religion as a category, and it is legal in a limited way in certain contexts. However, in most of the country, as a result of the Milford decision, it is no longer legal to exclude religious groups. 

At the high school level, I think after-school groups in general should have maximum leeway. But bear in mind that a number of the religious groups make an effort to insert themselves in school-related activities, such as athletics. If Christian athletes want to get together after the game and after school to talk about their religion or engage in acts of worship, that seems perfectly fine. But many groups now attempt to make their religion part of the game, inevitably forcing everyone on the team to take a public stand. 

We should not get overly legalistic here. Some things are legally or constitutionally permissible, but that does not mean that they are the right thing to do. If a school in a diverse community is to function well, its members need to show a certain amount of civility and respect toward one another. We are all free to practice our faith, if any, in our homes, houses of worship, and any number of other places. Do we really need to turn our public schools into religious battlefields? 
The book addresses something that I have discussed in the past, the path taken by the Supreme Court in the last few decades which treated religious freedom as in effect a free speech issue.  There is some logic here: there is a clear overlap in First Amendment freedoms and early rulings like Cantwell v. Connecticut showed this by mixing free speech, assembly and free exercise issues involving in public promotion of the faith.  A famous ruling involving not pledging allegiance to the flag for religious reasons was ultimately treated as a free speech case.

And, in the 1980s, protecting religious clubs and so forth in public schools repeatedly gained near unanimous support in various rulings such as Lamb's Chapel (note horror movie reference) though various justices were wary or provided caveats. The caveats were important because merely speech isn't involved here. When the government endorses speech, as it can, it cannot endorse religions in the process. Stewart's book underlines such endorsement can come in other ways, particularly when we look at things as a matter of good policy.  This also is a matter of what states are allowed to do -- the very case involving the title group involved not letting New York choose to keep religious groups from public elementary schools and in an ongoing case from taking over public schools (for peanuts) for Sunday church services. 

New York broadly allows groups to use such schools to promote "moral" purposes and the open-ended nature of such discretion was one reason they got in trouble -- concerned? Just narrow the nature of the forum in question, perhaps not allowing outside groups to come in right after school.  Such was the trend of the questions at oral argument, Scalia wanting to rub in the apparent exaggerated nature of the state's case so much that he didn't even let CJ Rehnquist close the oral argument (a stickler unlike his successor, it was striking to listen to Scalia and Kennedy extend things, even if it amounted to only about 1/2 minute).  Even Souter was skeptical about the idea that you could keep a church from using an empty school building on Sundays.

One value of the book is that it provides some real life facts that belie various preconceived notions expressed in the oral argument. Breyer joined the conservatives here but the book should change his voice if his standards (stated in a concurrence) were seriously applied:
The time of day, the age of the children, the nature of the meetings, and other specific circumstances are relevant in helping to determine whether, in fact, the Club “so dominate[s]” the “forum” that, in the children’s minds, “a formal policy of equal access is transformed into a demonstration of approval.”
Scalia ridiculed the idea that children were hanging around to be drawn in but the book notes that the group starts setting up before the day begins, has been known to set up shop outside the school during recess and other times, have their personnel volunteer at the school and so forth.  The majority opinion noted at one point "even if we were to consider the possible misperceptions by schoolchildren," unlike Breyer really merely concerned with the parents, but the book shows that a honest person would see the young children here very well can and do "perceive [official] endorsement" here. [Endorsement that leads them to tell others that they have the wrong God and are going to hell. Ha ha, Scalia!]  This is part of the reason why public schools don't want groups like these there in the first place, particularly since the net result is that only certain religions will be promoted.  Confusion aside, yes, the fact religion and state mixture of this sort in practice benefits certain religions in particular was a major concern of James Madison et. al.

The author drew a different line for high school students and federal law does too via the funding requirements in the Equal Access ActYes, the advocate slipped up saying that 1980s law didn't allow religious clubs in elementary schools, but it does treat high school students differently given their maturity, both to make choices of whom to follow and that the groups aren't being endorsed by the school.  When the Good News ruling was handed down, I myself (who accepted the religious clubs rulings) thought having these groups right after school in second grade was a bridge too far.  And, though Scalia for some reason couldn't accept it, it surely looks to be a sort of "worship," not just a religious perspective given on the issues of the day.  The book explains all of this.

There are various books (including Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Rising) that covers the material found here (including the aforementioned textbook wars and how religious belief is mixed in with "secular" abstinence education; see, e.g., the dissent here).  The best aspect of this one in particular is the concerns of a parent of a young child in a public school that a divisive fundamentalist group is targeting public school children in a no holds barred fashion. In fact, they are quite enthusiastic about the battle (such is the nature of evangelism though others handle it differently)  and have a deep feeling of certitude and justice. And, they are far from totally aboveboard about it, thus the "stealth."  This all is counter to the basic cosmopolitan nature of public schools.  

[I would add that it would have be better if we had a fuller account respecting the origins of the Good News Clubs, instead of the book treating them in effect "in medias res."]  

This should (and does, once they get a sense of it) trouble even those -- after all "Christian" to the Good News Club movement has a narrow reach -- who do not mind some mixture of church and state, even pretty conservative in various respects.  At least, it is better to be more informed about the nature of the situation, avoiding the caricatures of a Scalia. Being fully informed will not lead everyone to agree, but  it helps.


* Both sides do this sort of thing, surely, but this strident (though there is someone else at the blog consistently worse) take on the Notre Dame lawsuit (as my comments there suggests) annoyed me. I find the argument weak, but a pet peeve of mine is attitude. When it is done by someone firmly in the wrong, it is harder to take; I don't like it either way.