Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Government neutrality on religion protects us all

In a comment on my last blog post, my good friend Gavin stated that he is "concerned about the rise of secularism in general" because atheist groups are "far more intolerant of religious people than religious people are intolerant of atheists." I think this is far from the case, and I want to share a few stories of people who have bravely fought to be treated neutrally by their government.

I'm giving a summary of Vashti's story from a paper I found online here, although I originally heard many of these stories on FFRF podcasts.

My first example is Vashti McCollum. She isn't atheist, but wanted freedom to teach her children her own interpretation of the Bible. Her son Jim came home with a permission slip to allow him to participate in religious instruction at the school. She refused to sign it, but after heavy pressure from his peers, Jim desperately wanted her to sign it, so she did. She soon found that the class was not teaching ethics and morals, but rather religious indoctrination including faith and miracles. She transferred her son Jim to another school, and the next school again sent home a similar permission slip, she again refused to sign it, and Jim began to be bullied by his peers who saw that he was not attending the religious instruction class. He was forced to sit alone in the music room while everyone else went to the class. She decided to sue, on the grounds that the school was violating the 1st and 14th amendments.

Her family was ostracizied from the community. She often received very angry and threatening letters and phone calls, which were most especially vehement on Sunday evenings (after church). At one point, a crowd marched on her house singing "Onward, Christian Soldiers," rang her doorbell, and when she opened the door, she was pelted by rotten fruits and vegetables. People would dump their garbage in front of their front door. Jim often came home crying, and teachers seemed angry at him for not attending the class.

It was under these circumstances that the Supreme Court found that the only way for the schools to treat all students equally would be to ban religious classes in public schools. This decision protects all religious minorities. A Mormon family in Texas found refuge in it, and sued to prevent the Southern Baptist majority in the area from pushing their religion on their children. It protects students in Utah from having Mormonism pushed on them. Ultimately, these decisions protect all religions, and defends our right to not have someone else's religion pushed on us or our children at school.


gavinomics said...

I still think that atheists are more intolerant of religious people than vice versa. It just seems that way based on personal experience as well as the books I have read, and what I hear on the news and online.

I don't know if this can be statistically tested. One probably can't just do a survey asking Christians how tolerant they are of atheists and vice versa, but one story of intolerance from Christians doesn't seem to add much to the debate.

I attended a Baptist school from K-8 in Lodi, Ca. It was Mokelumne River School. I memorized their Catechisms, I participated in their passover remembrance activities, and I learned their religious beliefs. I even went to their Jesus camp at Hume Lake. Towards 7th and 8th grade, I started to hear remarks from the students and teachers (Former Pastor Mr. McLarty) that Mormons are going to hell and other anti-Mormon remarks—Some in class, some to my face from other students.

My experience doesn't sound as bad as Jim's story, but I had no problem participating in learning Catechisms that I didn't believe in. Nor, did my parents. In fact, we talked about it at home and it was an interesting learning experience. Similarly, my Sikh friend Ranjith went to the same school and I remember hearing his parents teach him not to believe the Christian part of the curriculum, but to be a good student nonetheless.

My point is that parents can teach children to ignore what they don't agree with in the schools if the parents choose to live in a community where there beliefs were in the minority. Schools should have the right to teach religion in class especially since the parents are paying for that school through taxes. If the majority of the community is religious, then schools should offer religious education as a way of being accountable to the payers of that education. Banning religion from schools is in my opinion a huge imposition of the state and a violation of the parent's rights.

Banning religion is not neutral. I think it is using the law to legitimize intolerance.

Bennion said...

It's not banning religion, it's banning the teachers from teaching religion in public schools. The Bill of Rights was created to protect the rights of minorities from the majority. Before i respond to your comments, i want to get a little more information on your views. Do you agree that the Bill of Rights protects minorities from the majority? Do you think the 1st amendment prevents the government from endorsing a religion? Would you be comfortable with schools discriminating against atheist or Mormon teachers?

gavinomics said...

Dang, I meant to write "Banning religion 'in schools' is not neutral."

Do you agree that the Bill of Rights protects minorities from the majority?
That may be a part of the justification for the Bill of rights. I am inclined to think that the primary purpose of the Bill of rights is to protect certain rights regardless of whether it benefits the majority or the minority. In other words, I don't see the Bill of Rights as trying to protect minorities from the majority as much as trying to protect everyone from the abuses of government power.

Do you think the 1st amendment prevents the government from endorsing a religion?
I don't know. I think the word endorse is pretty broad. Is having a Christian-themed prayer in congress endorsing Christianity? Is taking an oath over the Bible endorsing Christianity? In one sense I think it is. If these practices were common among the framers of the Constitution, then I don't think that intent of the 1st amendment was to prevent government from endorsing religion. I think that the intent was to prevent an establishment of one particular state religion like the established state-religions in Europe.

Would you be comfortable with (public) schools discriminating against atheist or Mormon teachers?
Comfortable? I don't know. Should it be up to the discretion of the individual schools? I think so, as long as the schools are accountable to majority of parents in the community—after all they are paying for it.

As a clarification, I think that most of public school policy is made at the state level which is important in the discussion of how the first amendment applies to schools.

Bennion said...

Ok, well let's just disagree on this one. You say the Bill of Rights should "protect everyone from the abuses of government power." We do agree on that. I consider schools teaching religion to be an abuse of government power, and you apparently consider any prohibitions against them teaching religion to be an abuse of government power.

I agree with the Supreme Court's interpretation of the 1st amendment, which is that church and state must be separated. Some of the founders, such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, strongly believed in that separation as well, while some of them didn't. They weren't all on the same side on most issues.

I personally wouldn't feel comfortable with schools or any organization (except a religious organization) discriminating on the basis of religion for employment. The Civil Rights Act prevents that from happening, and as a minority that could be discriminated against, I personally support and am grateful for that protection.

gavinomics said...

I think your point about public schools and religion is probably valid in many instances. I think it is a matter of unpleasant trade-offs at that point. I believe that these problems and many more would be solved by privatizing education.

Also, I think that we would both agree that schools ought to teach kids how to think, not what to think.

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