Recently, in my hometown of Findlay, Ohio, there was a big to do about the Holy Bible and kids.
It seems that 5th grade students were trotted outside their schools and given copies of the New Testament by members of Gideons International, an evangelical society known for handing out Bibles as part of their missionary work.
The problem was that it seemed the schools organized the students and escorted them outside to the public sidewalk during the school day to get the Bibles. It was treated like a field trip.
Why can that be a problem?
As a March 26th editorial in the Findlay Courier put it:
“But the schools were involved to purposely facilitate evangelism. School officials know full well that some children have never had their own Bible. It is not the public school system’s place to fill in where the church has failed.”
The editorial caught the eye of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and they sent a letter of complaint to the school district about the practice on May 28th:
A long line of Supreme Court cases has established that school administrators may not use their public positions to endorse religion, to order students to attend religious functions, or to force students to profess religious beliefs….
Additionally, school officials must respect the personal beliefs of student’s families, and may not attempt to circumvent their beliefs by exposing the students to separate religious practice…..
We hope that this problem can be addressed without further investigation or involvement on the part of the ACLU of Ohio. However we are prepared to explore other options, including legal action, if the Findlay City Schools fails to correct the matter.
Letter to Findlay City Schools 5/28/2008
The response to the complaint was pretty predictable based on the content of comments in the Letters to the Editor section of the Courier and elsewhere.
There were people who said “What about the rights of Christians?” and commenting like Mark A. Shrider in his blog Right on the Mark:
I don’t believe it was the plan of our Founders to keep religion out of our Government; but rather, to keep government out of our religion. Prohibiting the distribution of religious material on Public/Government Property certainly is in violation of the First Amendment. Confining religious expression of any kind to ones home, church or other private property kills the spirit of religious freedom.
The Free Exercise Thereof
Shrider forgets that when civil rights come in conflict one party’s rights will be reduced in order to protect the rights of the other party. That’s what court cases do – figure out which right trumps the conflicting right. In this case, as the ACLU points out in their letter, the religious rights of students and their parents are more important than the right of the Gideons International to pass out Bibles during school hours.
Also by protecting the student’s rights, the Gideons’ rights aren’t diminished that much. They can still hand out their Bibles – just not on school grounds or during school hours. Of course it would be a stickier issue if the prohibition on handing out Bibles resulted in the Gideons not being able to practice their religion at all, but like most separation issues, the results only restrain some of the religious activities.
It is the same principle as to why one isn’t allowed to falsely yell “FIRE!” in a crowded theater.
In a later comment Shrider also said:
Again, there is no law being passed here; only information. Information that should be brought home to mom & dad to review.
He is under the false assumption that the 1st Amendment only applies to actual laws passed the various legsislative units. Separation of church and state has also been applied to actions and policies of the state. One example is the Judge Roy Moore Ten Commandments rock in Alabama. There was no law involved but his actions were found to go against the 1st Amendment and he had to remove the rock from the Alabama State Supreme Court building. Another example is the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District court case where a school district was found to have violated the 1st Amendment by trying to teach Intelligent Design in their district.
Like I said these reactions were predictable. Some of them however made me a bit upset.
Some letter writers made comments like this:
The ACLU has made itself a professional watchdog to recognize any citizen activity that could be construed as a movement toward the possible establishment of a religion-centered government in America. The ACLU is being perceived as a civil organization of determined professional lawyers who become paranoid whenever any religious activity appears to be potentially an “established” government entity.
Has this voluntary “watchdog” agency become an absolute negative in its perceived mandate to be a service to America? We are losing our moral compass! Furthermore, Americans cherish their freedoms but are increasingly fearful of coming under a cloud of negative forces by this civil volunteer “union” organization which threatens to throw the book at any apparent infringement of its standards. It even includes this threat in its written initial communications. Surely this is “overkill” by a “do-good” organization.
Letters to the Editor 06/19/2008
The way the ACLU carries on, you would think our school board was allowing our children to receive packets of drugs on school time. I sometimes feel that aliens from space have come to earth and taken over my beloved USA.
As children growing up in New York City during the 50s, we sang the hymn “Holy Holy Holy” and had Bible reading in auditorium in our public school every Thursday afternoon by our Jewish principal, Mr. Berkowitz.
On school time, 1:30-3 p.m. each Wednesday, we were released to go for religious education at our church of choice or temple.
Not one parent, teacher, principal or school board member complained. There was no ACLU (that I remember) to defend us against the horrors of religious belief mixing in with public education.
Letters to the Editor 05/30/2008
I don’t speak for anyone but myself, but as a believer in Jesus Christ and the Bible, I’m taught to contend for my faith. And my faith is being attacked by an organization that falsely represents itself as a defender of the Constitution. But its real agenda is to create a secular society in America!
If you wanted to destroy a nation, you would attack its core beliefs, calling its foundation a lie, to render it useless. This is what the ACLU is doing! The ACLU attacks nativity scenes and the Ten Commandments! The ACLU attacks town logos and symbols that incorporate a Bible or cross, regardless whether they have been a part of those towns’ symbols since their founding. The ACLU attacks our currency (“In God We Trust”).
The ACLU’s modus operandi is always to bully and intimidate. If you read the last paragraph of the Courier article, it is to threaten our school system! (Not to chastise, as the Courier headline announced.) What the ACLU does not know is that Findlay has a zero tolerance for bullies!
So now the ACLU is attacking the Bible being handed out to school children on the sidewalk, by Gideons International. My advice to our school system is to hold its ground! Don’t cede as much as an inch! We don’t scare so easily here in Flag City USA.
Letters to the Editor 6/11/2008
That last comment was a doozy wasn’t it. The ACLU wants to destroy the nation? I’m sure that the letter writers are decent people but their lack of knowledge about the work of the ACLU and the regurgitation of religious right talking points made me sad. I had to respond with my own letter. The following is the original text of my letter that was published by the Courier on 6/18/2008.
I was going to stay out of the whole Findlay Schools and Bible debate but I am shocked at some of the comments about religious freedom and the ACLU I have read in the Letters to the Editor. Some of the writers really need to do some basic research before passing off biases as fact.
The ACLU was founded in 1920 and its purpose is to provide legal assistance in cases in which it considers civil liberties to be at risk. In the beginning it opposed attacks on the rights of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and other labor unions to meet and organize.
Powell v. Alabama (1932) was a United States Supreme Court decision which determined that in a capital trial, the defendant must be given access to counsel upon his or her own request. Miranda v. Arizona (1966) required police to read you your rights before you answer any of their questions.
It filed a brief in support of Brown v. Board of Education, which led to the ban on racial segregation in U.S. public schools. It successfully argued against state bans on interracial marriage, in the case of Loving v. Virginia (1967).
And ironically in 2004 it argued in support of keeping medical records private during the drug abuse case of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. The ACLU is also taking the lead in protecting our rights against Bush’s warrantless wiretaps and the abuses of the Patriot Act.
When your civil liberties are at risk and you happen to fall on the other side of popular support, the ACLU is one of the few groups who will take the time and effort to defend your rights at little to no cost.
Also many of the court cases that have led to enforcement of separation of church in state in the public schools were started by believers who felt their religious freedom was being trampled on. Abington Township School District v. Schempp (consolidated with Murray v. Curlett) (1963) ended teacher led Bible reading in schools – Edward Schempp was a Unitarian but many believers want to “blame” Madalyn Murray O’Hair – the atheist – who happened to be part of the case. Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000) which prohibited student led prayers at high school football games was started by two families – one Mormon, the other Catholic and on and on. Just read the cases.
Finally there is the simple idea that you shouldn’t impose your religious beliefs on other people’s children no matter your intentions. Leave religious education to the parents not the public schools.
My Letter to the Editor published on 06/18/2008
The paper only cropped the case examples I included in the 2nd to last paragraph.
My point is that the ACLU is one of the only groups who will help an individual fight the “tyranny of the majority”. A guiding principle in a democracy is to protect the rights of the minority – either in class, social economic, or philosophy view points. Sometimes you have to hold the majority accountable and the non-violent means is through the courts.
As John Stuart Mill wrote in his work On Liberty:
Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant — society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it — its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.
John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty
Even if the ACLU takes a position you personally dislike doesn’t mean they are out to destroy the nation, it works to hold the nation to the principles held in the Bill of Rights.
Even if there is one person who holds a religious view point different than you, doesn’t give you the right to force your beliefs on them, no matter your intent. People like the letter writers I noted above either forget that principle or ignore it for their own ends.
Who is really trying to destroy the nation?