I was listening on the car radio this morning to Jay Weber (I switched from WPR because I wasn’t interested in that discussion and went searching for something more stimulating) and he was off on a tangent concerning some six year old girl who had written a piece to be read aloud at some school function and she had placed the word G-d twice in her speech. Word got out that her speech had G-d in it and one parent objected. According to Weber, school administrators decided that the speech was inappropriate for mentioning G-d and disallowed its reading. Webber in his outrage began to prattle on about how this six year olds right to free speech was being violated and that the establishment clause was being pushed too far.
As I listened; I began to think about not only this issue but where limits should be set. This situation with the six year old, didn’t amount to much; since as a minor, she doesn’t have the unlimited right of free speech. However, what right does anyone have to bringing religious expression into public government venues?
I began public school in the fall of 1951 and we were drilled to learn to recite the “Pledge of Allegiance” each and every morning in the classroom, facing the flag with our right hand held over our heart. Along with the opening prayer read over the school’s intercom, saying the pledge was part of our routine. In the third grade, 1954, I had to relearn the Pledge all over again. Congress had passed the law requiring the insertion of the phrase “under G-d” that had to be included. The teacher had us practice over and over again the “new Pledge” until we had committed it to memory. No one took exception to this change or to the fact that we opened the day with a school prayer. If the same actions were done today, the nation would explode over the controversy.
There is no clearer indication of values conflict than that of religious expression in public venues. Recently, conflict had arisen over one of the local school districts who had held graduation in a mega church because they didn’t have a venue big enough to hold the graduation. In the sixty years since I first started public school, the political landscape has changed requiring schools and other public entities to become the mediators to assure inclusion of all possible religious understandings and affiliations. This has had the greatest impact on public schools where inclusion means completely avoiding anything that remotely can be tied to religion or religious expression. Looking at the situation, one has to ask why so many are determined to either include or exclude religion into the secular space of public education.
As someone who believes that we need to protect the secular nature of the public schools; it is difficult for me to fathom why this religious expression in schools is so dominant and so important to its proponents. I was taught that religious belief and expression were strictly private matters and that I had the right to believe and practice anything that I want as long as it didn’t harm others or force my belief system onto others. I know why people are so attentive to keeping any and all religion out of the schools; much of it being a “slippery slope” argument. If we allow for even a minor religious expression, that the religionists will continue to push to get more included. So what is the correct position to take?
Let’s keep the two worlds separate in the public schools. Excluding all religious expression is the safest course of action. It maintains the neutrality of our schools and keeps them off the horns of a dilemma of what’s permissible and what’s not. I have often heard religionists talk about that “intelligent design” and/or “creationism” should also be taught along side of scientifically verified evolution. The primary issue there is that evolution does not need the notion of a religious creator being and can explain life and evolution without resulting to non scientific beliefs. Therefore, evolution is proper for the secular classroom and creationism is not.
Living in a diverse world requires reasonable limits that we should all observe. It is not unreasonable to preclude religion and religious expression from the public classrooms.