[www.washtimes.com] Any thoughts on this story?
maule at LAW.VILLANOVA.EDU
Fri Jan 18 14:46:19 PST 2002
A government agency or government-operated school that seeks to teach "about" religion has an obligation to ensure that the students are not misled. Misleading the students could have a negative impact on the denomination(s) being studied, thus impeding the free exercise rights of that denomination's members. Thus, only if the agency or school takes certain steps can it even begin to assert that it has met that obligation.
1. A person who is not a member of a denomination poses the risk of transmitting mis-information. A member of a particular denomination or religion generally makes for a good teacher about it. So, too, someone who has studied and examined that denomination or religion. I hardly think that a several-hour or several-day session getting familiarized with a specific religion or denomination curriculum qualifies a person to "teach about" that religion or denomination. It may qualify that person to "talk about" or "transmit information about" that religion or denomination, but it does not necessarily prepare that person to convey understanding of that religion or denomination, which would be the governmental interest in the matter (on the assumption that increasing understanding of other religions and denominations lessens tensions that threaten the social order).
2. Unless all denominations and religions (or at least all of those present and practiced in the country) are examined, a bias ensues. If "major" religions are covered, but "minor" ones are not, is there not a negative free expression problem, in the form of perceived endorsement? Who determines what is a "major" religion? Who determines the test, if it is not "major" v. "minor", for selecting the covered religions and denominations?
3. Is atheism a religion? Is agnosticism a religion? Is Wicca a religion? Is Santeria a religion? Is Satanism a religion? Do they get "taught about"?
4. Is Christianity one "religion"? Is it even possible to "teach about" Christianity without dealing with its denominations and sects? The suggestion that there is no need to "teach about" Christianity because it is the dominant religion of the country, while teaching about (some of) the others, assumes that Christians of various denominations understand the others and that non-Christians likewise understand those differences. There is more than sufficient evidence that this is not so. Even if the differences between consubstantiation and transubstantiation are too deep for students in grades 7-12, somehow reducing the accusation that certain Christians "practice cannibalism" (however phrased) would need to be addressed. Getting into such matters is hardly something a school should do without the appropriate personnel.
5. Assuming that it is possible to "teach about" religion without giving people mis-information, wrong impressions, and mis-understanding, role-playing is not an appropriate way to do so. For many denominations and religions, certain rituals and practices are sacred. Pretending to engage in those rituals and practices is not only offensive to many but also presents the risk of trivializing those rituals and practices. Although "pretend" may be a great child's game and a way of learning at an early age, I doubt that anyone would advocate that children should be taught about the dangers of drugs by pretending to "do drugs," the need for responsible gun ownership and use by pretending to use guns, the wrongness of theft by pretending to steal, or the risks of unprotected sexual activity by pretending to have unprotected sexual relations. If the goal of teaching students about the inappropriateness and dangers of insulting people of various religions supposedly can be met in part by having them pretend to be members of those religions, then would those advocating such an approach agree that the goal of teaching students about the inappropriateness and dangers of insulting people of the opposite gender can be met in part by having them pretend to be members of that opposite gender and that the goal of teaching students about the inappropriateness and dangers of insulting people of different sexual orientations can be met in part by having the students pretend to be people with those different sexual orientations? And even if the answer is yes, the First Amendment concerns implicated in the religion area don't even exist in the latter two.
Yes, there was a lot of poor judgment involved. Perhaps by the teachers, perhaps by the supervisors, perhaps by the school board. Perhaps not by the lawyers. They're probably just getting the phone calls now.
Professor of Law, Villanova University School of Law
Villanova PA 19085
maule at law.villanova.edu
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