Saturday, January 25, 2014

What's wrong with religion in public schools?

Though a death certificate has been issued for Jahi McMath, many of the 13-year-old Oakland girl’s classmates still believe the “quiet leader” who laughed at jokes that weren't funny will one day return to school — if they just pray hard enough.

“The school told us that she’s not officially dead yet,” said Dymond Allen, one of Jahi's friends at EC Reems Academy of Technology and Arts in East Oakland, a public charter school that serves mostly disadvantaged kids. “And we should keep her in our prayers. I still hope. And God has the last say-so.”

Say what? "The school told us"? This is a public school. What right does a public school have to promote prayer, or to promote magical-thinking in general? (Note that this is supposed to be an "academy of technology," not Hogwarts.)

People have the right to believe whatever they want, and if those students want to pray, that's entirely their own business. But when the school gets involved, that's a violation of freedom of religion and the separation of church and state.

Not to mention being incredibly stupid. Now, yes, if even half the things they say about Jahi McMath are true, this is a horrible tragedy. Heck, it's a tragedy when any 13-year-old dies, and this seems especially senseless. Jesus, dying from a tonsillectomy? How could a good god allow something like that?

Her friends and family want to believe that there's still some hope, but frankly, they're being preyed on by the Catholic Church. But never mind all that. That's entirely up to the people involved. What's absolutely wrong here is having a public school weigh in on the side of magic.

In this particular case, I wouldn't expect a public school to weigh in on either side, since this is about religious belief. Would you want a public school to tell its students that prayer is useless? Of course not. Me, neither. (A public school could report the failure of prayer in scientific studies, but not as a direct attack on religious belief - and probably not for 13-year-olds, anyway.) That's why the separation of church and state is one of America's fundamental principles.

But maybe you're wondering what's so wrong with it? Well, how about this:
Like many people I have encountered who were raised in a Christian environment, I was indifferent to what I felt were minor infractions of the law that protects the separation of church and state. ... But then, when my stepson, who has been raised a Buddhist, enrolled in the sixth grade at our local school, Negreet High, it became personal, and I could no longer turn a blind eye to the very real harms that occur when school officials violate the separation of church and state.

My stepson started at Negreet in the same class as one of my children. By the end of the first week of school, he was having serious stomach issues and anxiety. We couldn't figure out why. In the mornings, my wife would pull over on the side of the road as they approached school so he could throw up. At first, we thought he was sick and we let him stay home. Soon it became apparent that this was not a cold, but something much worse. Our children informed us that their teacher had been chastising and bullying my stepson for his Buddhist beliefs.

On a science test, their teacher had included a fill-in-the-blank question: "ISN'T IT AMAZING WHAT THE _____________ HAS MADE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" When my stepson didn't know the answer ("Lord"), she belittled him in front of the entire class. When he wrote in "Lord Buddha" on another exam, she marked it wrong. As she was returning that exam to students, one student proclaimed aloud that "people are stupid if they think God is not real." In response, my stepson's teacher agreed, telling the class, "Yes! That is right! I had a student miss that on his test." The entire class broke out in laughter at my stepson.

The same teacher also told our children that the Bible is "100 percent true," that the Earth was created by God 6,000 years ago, and that evolution is "impossible" and a "stupid theory made up by stupid people who don't want to believe in God." She's also told the class that Buddhism is "stupid."

We were shocked, but we quickly learned from our children that these types of activities were not unusual. School officials were repeatedly imposing their religious beliefs on students in myriad ways.

Again, this was a public school. But this was probably just the result of one bad teacher, right? I'll bet the principal had something to say about this, don't you think?
When we went to the school to meet with the principal, we saw a large picture of Jesus over the school's main doors, a Bible verse on the school's electronic marquee, and numerous religious posters and pictures on the walls. Religious images and messages are displayed throughout the school, in fact.

We learned from our children that official prayers, typically led by the principal or teachers, are routinely incorporated into class and school events ...

We discovered that school officials were distributing religious literature to students. For example, one of our other son's teachers passed out copies of a book from the "Truth For Youth" program, a revivalist ministry. The book included the entire New Testament of the Bible as well as cartoons that denounce evolution and trumpet the evils of birth control, premarital sex, rock music, alcohol, pornography, homosexuality, sorcery, and witchcraft.

OK, then, how about just one bad school? It couldn't be more than that, could it?
We assumed that the Superintendent was not aware of all the unlawful activities at Negreet and would want to know about them so she could rectify the situation, but we could not have been more wrong. She was dismissive and told us that we live in the "Bible Belt" and that this is just how things are. ...

My wife and I were floored. I tried to point out that the "Bible Belt" was not a separate country and that we were still entitled to religious liberty as guaranteed by the Constitution. She would have none of it, however. She asked whether my stepson had to be raised as a Buddhist and even suggested that he "change" his faith to better fit in.

Simple, huh? If you don't want to suffer religious discrimination - in a public school - just change your religion. Problem solved, right?

I wonder how those people would feel if things were reversed, if a public school were pushing some other religion than their own. Would they think that changing their own religion would be a good solution to the problem?

That's why we require a strict separation between church and state in America. That's why we're supposed to have that separation, anyway, even if it doesn't always work out that way in practice. And that's why we need to be vigilant about violations of the law.

Like most people, I suspect, this guy, this parent, had never been particularly concerned about "minor infractions of the law that protects the separation of church and state." But it doesn't seem so minor when it happens to your kids, does it?

And when they switched schools, when his stepson left Negreet High School for a different public school (because, according to the superintendent of the school district, there were "more Asians" there), they found the same thing: "school officials regularly promote Christianity."

It's not just Buddhists. I've heard personal stories from Jews raised in the Deep South, for example, that shame us all. And atheists are regularly bullied almost everywhere.

But if it were Christians suffering discrimination, I'd feel just the same. That's the great thing about the separation of church and state - it protects us all.


jeff725 said...

I've been doing some thinking about the church-state concept. Are we progressives going about this issue wrongly in terms of language?

Consider: Religious conservatives are constantly claiming that there's no such thing as "separation of church and state." OK, let's analyze that. There's no such phrase as "separation of church and state" in the Constitution, but there is such a phrase as "establishment of religion," which is prohibited as per the 1st Amendment.

In his book "Don't Think Of An Elephant," George Lakoff criticizes liberals for getting out-flanked by conservatives in the "framing" of an issue. On this issue, I think he's particularly right; instead of using the "separation of church and state" phrase, use the term "establishment of religion. That way, liberals may actually gain the linguistic high ground. There's already been a foothold gained by some progressive articles I've read online commenting about how public officials shouldn't be subject to a "religious test" as per Article VI, sec. (3) in the Constitution.

WCG said...

In general, I agree with you, Jeff. Republicans are much better at framing an issue. But remember, they have built-in advantages.

First, they have no problem whatsoever with lying ("death panels," for example). Second, they eagerly march in lockstep. Very quickly, everyone on the right is repeating the same thing. It's echoed by every right-wing politician, blog, and media outlet in the country.

Third, thanks to favoring the very rich, they've always got a lot of money to push their message, not to mention dedicated media channels like Fox 'News' which do nothing but push that same right-wing framing (again, all marching in lockstep).

And finally, they've got the rest of our corporate media which relishes that kind of argument entirely for commercial reasons. Thus, even 'mainstream' media treat "death panels" as a serious claim, presenting "both sides" of the "controversy" - because it makes money for them.

Liberals will never have those same advantages. Some of that is a good thing, some is just the way it is. (Republicans tend to march in lockstep. Liberals will rarely even get all facing in the same direction.)

So, in general, I agree with you. But not on this particular phrase. The separation of church and state is not a liberal issue. In fact, it's been about as mainstream as it's possible to get in America. It's been part of our national heritage for more than 200 years.

It used to be that both political parties supported the separation of church and state - more in theory than in practice, perhaps, but it was still in both platforms. The separation of church and state is a good thing, a very good thing, and we all used to recognize that.

There's no way in hell that liberals should be retreating on this, and there's no way in hell that this is a framing issue. This is simply a case where the right-wing has become batshit crazy, and that should be a talking point on our side.

Heck no, I'm not going to start talking about "establishment of religion." That's a wishy-washy term which is typical for liberals who try to do "framing" themselves. Frankly, they're terrible at it, and that's a perfect example, don't you think? (Yes, I know that it's in the Constitution, but everyone knows what "separation of church and state" means.)

The separation of church and state was good enough for Thomas Jefferson, and it's good enough for me. This is a case where we've got the best language, without lying - and the traditional language, the language of our forefathers, too.

Sorry. They'll have to pry "the separation of church and state" from my cold, dead lips. :)