Friday, May 13, 2005

Zealots Hurt Their Cause, Even If It Is Separation

Unless AP has seriously misreported the events, preventing a mom from reading a Bible story in a Pennsylvania kindergarten class seems to have been a case of unthinking, mechanical interpretation of the Establishment Clause and education law.

Wesley's teacher had invited Busch to her classroom at Culbertson Elementary School on Oct. 18 as part of "Me Week," in which the class would learn more about a featured student, according to the complaint.

One of the activities involves the student's parent reading aloud from a favorite book in class. Busch said her son's favorite book is the Bible.

But before the teacher would let Busch continue, she said she would have to get permission from Principal Thomas Cook. After a meeting in the hall, Cook informed Busch she couldn't read the Bible in class, the lawsuit said.

If this was in fact the principal's application of separation of church and state, then it was utterly stupid. Obviously, "Me Week" is meant for the kids to share something personal with the class; therefore, religion presented in that context is not endorsed by the school, but acknowledged as a personal affair.

If Wesley's favorite story had been "Sleeping Beauty" instead, and his Mom read it to the class, would the school be seen as endorsing monarchy and the belief in fairies? How difficult is it to switch the brain on before telling somebody they may not do something - especially when it is guaranteed to piss them off?

Mrs. Busch's reaction was equally irrational, but individuals - unlike the school - have the right to be irrational:
"What Wesley has learned in all of this is that the Bible is bad in school, and they don't like it," Donna Busch said of her 6-year-old son.

Outcomes like this hurt the separation of religion form government, and hurt the image of secularism in general. If the facts, as reported, are true, the school principal did a great service to the Religious Right.

Of course, it is possible that the facts are different. Perhaps the particular story was deemed not suitable for the class. After all, no reasonable school official would allow showing "Scarface" or "9 1/2 Weeks" in a kindergarten class even if they were the boy's favorite movies, and there are plenty of stories in the Bible that are far more violent or sexually explicit.

If so, the school should have had the policy of advance review of all materials to be presented in the "Me Week" and should have explained the reason for rejection in terms independent of religion. (Perhaps they did, which would bring us back to the caveat from the opening sentence. We'll see...)


Steven F. Goldberg said...

When secularists take offense at each and every utterance of a religious sentiment we risk having our views on such fundamental issues as the separation of religion and government trivialized. What next? Will we prevent students from voluntarily saying "grace" before eating lunch, or saying "god bless you" when somebody sneezes?

If we are to influence the public discourse we must choose our battles wisely, and avoid such irrational, knee-jerk responses. Otherwise we risk being perceived as being the enemy of religion rather than the champions of religious tolerance.

Alex Harman said...

Agreed. The difference between a teacher reading from the Bible to her class and a student or parent doing so in the context of expressing a personal belief or even just personal enjoyment of a story is the difference between the establishment of religion, forbidden by the first amendment, and its free exercise, protected by the same amendment. The inability of the principle to comprehend this unsubtle legal distinction is rather appalling.

mike stahl said...

Steven took the words right out of my mouth. I would add that reasoned, conscious debate is hard to refute and leads to better understanding. Most of the "debate" that the media presents is heated and emotional. No one becomes wiser or has a change of mind. I think that as Humanists we do not want to take that same style when presenting our views.