In parts of Florida, as in many parts of the South, one has to get used to governments flouting the First Amendment’s establishment clause. That’s the part that bars government from sponsoring religion. Some governments here have the good sense to respect the clause, some don’t, among them Bunnell, our beloved little town that always begins its city commission meetings as if it were a conclave of Plymouth Colony: city commissioners themselves lead the congregation in Christian prayer, a practice even the Supreme Court’s very permissive 2014 ruling on prayer at local government meetings would not allow. No one complains in Bunnell because every third house is a church, and heretics tend to be closeted there.
But heretics—by which I mean anyone who’s not a Christian, atheists and fanatical doubters included—are everywhere in our schools, always the advance guard of the nation’s magnificently growing diversity. For the most part they’ve been protected by an equally magnificent respect for secular public schools.
Unfortunately, Florida law may be about to change, and not for the better. The Senate last week easily approved a proposal that would expand religious currency in public schools. The bill’s proponents pretend that it does nothing more than protect religious expression. If they were right, the bill wouldn’t be needed, because religious expression is already greatly protected, even in public schools. This bill encourages religious expression. I won’t say that it explicitly encourages Christian expression. But that’s its intent, and that will be its consequence in districts where self-righteous crusaders have the sort of majorities they interpret as their god-given right not only to flaunt their religion but to impose it Bunnell-style.
It is the arrogance of belief, the presumption not only that belief should be paraded on one’s sleeves—which goes against Christ’s instructions to pray in private—but that everyone else should suffer the flaunting. It’s not enough that religious expression has free rein at your church, your synagogue, your mosque, your home, your friend’s home, your aunt’s home, your parents’ home, your school if you choose to attend a parochial one, your private business if it’s so inclined, your clubs, your retreats, your podiatrist’s office or your retirement community, if you’re that insistent. Now you have to bring it into public spaces, the only spaces that remain, or should remain, relatively free of overt religious intrusions.
“A student,” the new law reads, “may pray or engage in religious activities or religious expression before, during, and after the school day in the same manner and to the same extent that a student may engage in secular activities or expression.” It sounds fair. But it’s not lawful, particularly that part about engaging in religious activity during the school day. The First Amendment says nothing about prohibiting the establishment of English, math and Spanish class, chess and Key and thespian clubs. It explicitly prohibits the use of government as a conduit for religion, which is what this new law would allow. It would make public schools the conduit of students’ religious presumptions.
The personal right of religious expression in public schools is already inviolate. This bill would promore more organized religion on school grounds.
If you have doubts about the bill’s intent to implicitly peddle religion, note that it is silent on protecting people of no faith, at least as “faith” is narrowly and often self-servingly defined by traditionally faith-based assumptions. (Spinoza had more faith than the combined faith quotient of registrants at the annual Southern Baptist Convention, but Christians and fellow-Jews still branded him an atheist and heretic.) People of no faiths warrant the same level of respect and protection as more conventional believers. But Senate Bill 436 (sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley; its House equivalent is sponsored by Jacksonville’s Kimberly Daniels) doesn’t care to extend those protections. “Atheists,” as they are also inaccurately called, might as well not exist. The silence says it all. A bill posing as an anti-discrimination measure is premised on discrimination. Believers are chosen. Non-believers are not.
Of course the First Amendment also prohibits constraints on the free exercise of religion. But not where government has authority to elevate religion in any way. The distinction is often lost on sophists of equal protection. Evidence shreds the sophistry.
The first part of the bill lays out prohibitions on discrimination against religious viewpoints or expression, coursework, artwork, clothing, accessories, jewelry and so on. Those are superfluous prohibitions, put there more to garner the “of course” vote and mask the more insidious intent further down than to let the obvious prevail: No one is ever kept from wearing whatever religious symbols or even clothing an individual chooses. We’re not like France or Switzerland, those hypocrites of freedom, where the burka is banned. No one is ever kept from praying. I find such scenes moving, whether it’s a Christian family holding hands before a meal at a fast food joint or a Muslim laying out a prayer rug in the discreet corner of an Interstate travel stop and bowing to the East. The same standards apply in schools, where no student is ever kept from saying prayers, though it’s only reasonable to expect a student to pay attention to Bernard Shaw in English class rather than mumble the Lord’s Prayer. That’s not me speaking, it’s Christ: Render unto Caesar, and so on. (A little Biblical history wouldn’t hurt: it is often secularism’s best defense.)
The difference is when the school becomes a de facto sponsor of the activity, its conduit or facilitator. That’s what the religious expression bill does. It doesn’t respect religious expression. It proscribes it. It requires school districts to draft policies enabling it, thus immediately making the district a religious sponsor—not of a specific religion, but of religion, which is bad enough–and it goes so far as requiring the rules to enable student-led prayer groups that may include faculty and staff, and to allow students to gab about god at school events, with large, captive assemblies such as graduations, as long as they note that the school district doesn’t necessarily endorse the student’s viewpoint.
But religious allowances aren’t made more permissible by disclaimers. The religious allowance is the violation. Schools are places of learning for all. And personal expression of religious beliefs remains absolutely inviolate. But students inclined to have prayer groups during the school day or to launch religious sermons to school assemblies would not have that chance but for the public setting they would be using (actually, abusing) to exercise a freedom they would not otherwise have, and that they can exercise in virtually every other imaginable setting. Religion isn’t like that good school breakfast too many students can only get at school, because of pervasive poverty. For rich or poor, black, white, brown, yellow or green, religion is an American contagion: hardly any space is free of it. Lawbreaking aside, the insistence on extending the contagion to public schools beyond the plenty of pieties already allowed and exercised is majority overkill at the expense of minorities either secular or not belonging to the reigning religious kahuna. It is cloaking organized religion in the seemingly innocent artifice of student initiative.
Five years ago Floridians had the good sense to repeal the proposed “Florida Religious Freedom Amendment” to the state constitution. Contrary to its Orwellian wording, the amendment would have favored religion at public expense by allowing public dollars to be used for religious purposes such as subsidizing parochial schools. Then as now, the amendment was presented as equal-playing-field argument, pretending that religious organizations should be treated like everyone else, that they should be worthy of public money like everyone else, thus missing the point of the prohibition on mingling church and state and its reason: the moment you give government a hand in governing religion in any way, religion is adulterated, sectarian hierarchies are established, favors and disfavors muck up clericalism as if it were just another swamp of special interests, and public places become the minefield of unintended consequences. I’d like to see some of our school districts react when a Louis Farrakhan-like young Muslim—or a Calvinist mullah, for that matter—decides to turn a school assembly into a jeremiad on chosen races or predestination. As Christ himself once said, don’t go there.
We already have religious freedom in schools, and it’s working very well. We don’t need to canonize it.