Thursday, January 28, 2010

11 Mass. Dems against religious equality

Note: I did not mean for the following article to be published until Monday. It requires editing and will be updated and significantly clarified then. A special apology to Representative DiNatale, who has corresponded with me.

A bill designed to promote majority religions in public schools pushed forward by eleven Democrats. A law built on the template adored by the "Concerned Women for America". The end result would be local officials deciding which faiths to highlight and implicitly endorse at graduations, competitions, and school events. Is this Texas? Alabama? Wyoming?

No, it's happening right here in Massachusetts through bill HB376 -- "An Act to Protect Religious Freedom of Students". You can find it here in PDF format. Any time spent following the far-right knows that "protection of religious freedom" is just right-wing speak for "promoting Christianity". It's the same thinking that a doctor can abandon his obligations and oath if he doesn't like his patient for religious reasons. This particular bill is designed to order schools to accommodate the promotion of religion at public school events. It's the usual foolishness of the far-right, but I just don't know why eleven Democrats in Boston would think that's a good idea.

The bill mandates that public schools implement:

A policy that allows for a limited public forum and voluntary student expression of religious views at school events, graduation ceremonies, and in class assignments, and non-curricular school groups and activities.

First, ignore the word "limited" -- everything, even the universe, has limits (heat death scheduled in several billion years). What this bill provides for is a small group of people (perhaps one) deciding the appropriate expression of religious views at public school events. This bill provides for the exclusion of non-religious students and students holding less common faiths at public events. Make no mistake, a public school allowing the expression of any certain beliefs has the impact of endorsing those beliefs to the detriment of those who do not agree. And let's be clear that if only one speaker is making religious declarations at a school event...which religion do you suppose will get the slot? If 90% of the fans at a softball game are Christian, what's the chance of a reading of the Qur'an starting the game? As for the 22% of Bay Staters without a religious affiliation, well, they're excluded entirely. For that matter, even if the Qur'an is read at a certain high school graduation, non-Muslim students are left out that year.

This failed in the bright red state of Oklahoma, where Democratic Governor Brad Henry understood that this type of bill puts school officials in the place of balancing the Constitutional freedoms of students.

Texas school boards are constantly fearful in navigating what school boards call "the rock and the hard place" of mixing church and state, but in a "limited manner". Of course, far-right groups such as the hate-powered Massachusetts Family Institute love this idea and want to see it happen. It's an easy way to push popular religions in schools at the cost of religious freedom -- a trade-off reactionaries of the world would love.

Make no mistake: students have ample opportunity to live their religious beliefs in public schools as things stand. They do not have the opportunity to use public time and resources to compel others to endure their proselytization. This bill would change that. No student should attend their hard-earned graduation, only to hear the invocation of somebody else's God as school officials applaud, all on that student's dime. Participating on the local high school football team should not include hectoring to change your beliefs. That is what this bill would do.

Now, I don't expect much from Republicans, but I would urge people to call the Democrats who signed onto this bill and ask why non-Christians in public school should be left out of part of their own graduation ceremonies and other events (numbers here):

James Dwyer 30th Middlesex
Bruce E. Tarr First Essex and Middlesex
Dennis Rosa 4th Worcester
James R. Miceli 19th Middlesex
Angelo M. Scaccia 14th Suffolk
Stephen L. DiNatale 3rd Worcester
Paul J. Donato 35th Middlesex
Kathi-Anne Reinstein 16th Suffolk
William Lantigua 16th Essex
Thomas J. Calter 12th Plymouth
Kevin J. Murphy 18th


James Patrick Conway said...

Two comments:

1) Bruce Tarr is a Republican not a Democrat

2) You are confusing freedom of religion with freedom from religion. I have a right, in my college graduation speech, to thank Jesus Christ if I so choose. Or Mohammed is I so choose. To prevent people from expressing their religious views is against the Constitution. If a group of high school graduates want to say a hymn at the graduation that should also be permitted.

Now if the principals decide that the ceremony should have a denominationally specific benediction, a series of hymns, and that every speaker thank God, that would be infringing upon the rights of those that are not religious. But I don't see how expressing religious feelings is somehow against the freedom of religion-it seems to me to be the very exercise of it.

And yes if you wanted to end your speech saying there is no God that's fine too.

Quriltai said...

Shoot...this was a draft I didn't mean to have published before Monday.

Of course, you are free to thank whomever at your college graduation. However, if my tax money is going to you thanking a god/dess/es in a way that impacts the assembled as a public endorsement, that is unconstitutional.

I think that declaring that there is no god is a cognate of thanking the Christian God...neither statement has a place in a publicly funded ceremony.

James Patrick Conway said...

Disagree. The Constitution clearly states that there shall be no established church, it also permits freedom of expression, speech, assembly, and religion. Thus if I were to express a religious viewpoint that viewpoint is Constitutionally protected whether I am saying it in a publicly funded venue or not. Case in point the Congress has chaplains, case in point the Cambridge City Council inauguration has a multi faith invocation, case in point people swear on their holy book in the court of law.

Now if I were to say that the City of Cambridge is a Christian City or proclaim a Jesus Day like Dubya did as Gov of Texas, that crosses the line into establishment. If I hold the title of Mayor of Cambridge and ask say at the end of a speech God Bless Cambridge is that establishing a religion? I think not, since I am exercising my own personal opinion as a citizen as opposed to my capacity as Mayor of Cambridge. Similarly for a teacher to say god bless you after a child sneezes or to wish a merry christmas, that is not in their capacity as a teacher but their own expression of religion. It is when they attempt to coerce others into that, say forcing a spiritual (as opposed to historical) bible study onto a class or they ask students to bow their heads in silent prayer at the beginning of a class, that crosses a line.

This particular bill could be read two ways, part of the reason it is a bad bill, and I would vote against it on the grounds that the speech it is trying to protect is already covered and on the grounds that it is ambiguous and could be instructing schools to do the wrong thing. I think the law intends for students seeking to pray, form prayer groups, or otherwise engage in religious activity during a school day or its events to have their constitutional rights protected from overzealous administrators who presume school is a God free zone, which the Constitution affirmed by Supreme Court rulings say it is not. Even you agree that while the school cannot officially endorse a God or system of beliefs it also cannot prevent students and teachers from expressing those beliefs freely. You have nothing against prayer in school, like me you oppose school sponsored prayer. This bills intention is to protect student initiated prayer, but I agree its language could be interpreted to allow for school sponsored prayer and that is troubling.

It is also unfortunate that our dialogue on this issues was distracted by the overly zealous anti-religious rants of BrooklineTom and others over at BMG which prompted my perhaps admittedly overly zealous response. Religious beliefs, especially the lack of them, can lead to conflict of the zealous stripe.

But I think we can simply agree that this is a bad bill but for different reasons. I would completely disagree with your headline that they are against religious equality-I would argue they, and the law are trying to defend it. But perhaps we can agree Mass Dems Against Well Reasoned Laws.