Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Double Standards and the Religion of "Peace"

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
--US Constitution, First Amendment (of the Bill of Rights)
The separation of church and state has always been a complex issue. Federal, state and local governments are often forced into a delicate balancing act between official endorsement or support of a particular religion (or religiousness) and laws or policies which may restrict an individual's participation in their personal religious beliefs and practices. In general, the principle that the state should act, overall, as apathetic toward religion is a sound one, one based in the ideals of liberty and freedom. The state should not dictate or require specific religious beliefs or practices, nor should they restrict religion except where practices or beliefs run counter to community standards of morality and behavior (e.g., high crimes like murder or drug use, or for safety reasons). And in those cases where the government does seemingly interfere with religious practice or belief, it is not the "religion" itself that should be illegal, but actions that would be illegal for all. In other words, laws should be applied equally, regardless of religious belief, and no one should be targeted specifically because of their faith, nor be given special privileges to break the laws which everyone else must follow because of their affiliation.

The state cannot discriminate on the basis of religion, either positively or negatively. But necessary laws and regulations trump religion. Human sacrifice is still murder, and still a punishable offense, even if one believes Pele demands virgins be tossed into a volcano against their will.

While a few extremists believe that the United States should be a "Christian nation," some fail to see how important this first amendment protection really is. Some small group may well have no problem with the government endorsing Christianity, but these people should really consider just how different the government's version of Christianity might be from their own. They need to look at how varied, and often radical, other sects of Christianity might be compared to their own vision - Christian groups cover the spectrum, from the far "right" to the far "left." Some Christians can go on and on about their personal definition of a "true Christian," and who or what fits it, but there is no guarantee that the state would see it the same way. One need look no further than government established versions of history and morality, such as those taught in the public school systems, to see just how far away from ones own conceptions of these "subjects" those of our multifaceted government might just be. For example, one might be Christian and think that homosexuality is a sin, but does one really think a state established church would discriminate against gay ministers, given today's political climate?

The first amendment protects everyone. It's important to remember that.

Here in San Diego, in the public school system, however, it seems as if the state does not treat everyone equally. Here there is a double-standard. Here the first amendment is ignored. According to this article:
A substitute teacher claimed that Carver Elementary School in San Diego was indoctrinating students into Islam, and that a teacher's aide led Muslim children in prayer.
Carver is currently "
providing a 15-minute break in the classroom each afternoon to accommodate Muslim students who wish to pray." Is this a case of special privilege, or merely a case of a government institution doing its best not to restrict religious practice, akin to giving a specific day off for a Jewish holiday? Is that even fair, when atheists cannot get any special days or periods of time off? As the article reminds us:
Islam requires its adherents to pray at prescribed times, one of which falls during the school day.
At first glance, giving people time-off from school for religious reasons seems perfectly reasonable. And, according to school officials, it might even be required, at least by the current interpretations of the law:
Supporters of Carver say such an accommodation is legal, if not mandatory, under the law. They note the district and others have been sued for not accommodating religious needs on the same level as non-religious needs, such as a medical appointment.
One cannot completely fault a school district for acting in its best financial interests, and in turn the financial interests of the tax-payer, especially given the lack of leadership, consistency and clarity on the church and state issue from the local, state and federal government. However, making a decision based on the fact that someone has "been sued for" something in this highly litigious society is not an excuse for a government entity, for this is not the same as determining from these the judgments what is or is not actually legal, allowed or mandatory. Or right. Especially if this accommodation is somehow far and above accommodations given to students of other religions, or no religions at all. Basing policy on suits (and WHO is suing) rather than final court decisions is action out of fear. It is not a thoughtful assessment of legal responsibility. Importantly:
The U.S. Department of Education's guidelines say students can pray at public schools during school hours by themselves or with fellow students. However, teachers and other public school officials may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible or other religious activities.
What is most disturbing here in San Diego is the accusation that a school aide was "indoctrinating" and leading children in a "Muslim prayer." And that "
those who don't pray [could] read or write during that non-instructional time." While this may seem akin to a "moment of silence," for which some on the religious right have fought, it is not certain at all that the muslim prayer break is anything close to that. A moment of silence would allow each student to practice or not practice, to pray or not pray, to reflect or nod off, in complete quiet, on equal footing, with no particular practice or belief favored. No school official endorses or requires or supports any particular course of action during the silence. It is not clear in the Carver situation whether or not this prayer break occurred in the presence of non-muslim students. If it did, especially if it were vocally led by either an official or a student, to a captive audience, then this could be seen as a clear violation of the establishment clause. And, as only muslims are given this privilege, of equal protection too. Would a Christian group be given class-time and resources for prayer, say for a daily Catholic rosary? I think not. And here we have a huge double standard. Think of the valedictorians who could not read their individually written and personal speeches mentioning "God," for fear that allowing individual editorializing during the graduation ceremony, a school activity for all, constitutes endorsement not just by the private citizen, but by the school, and that such mention would be seen as a tiny bit of establishment. Schools have gone so far as to ban free speech for students during ceremonies, rather than say broadcasting a disclaimer that a student's views do not reflect those of the education system or are not necessarily endorsed by the school. Yet here in San Diego Islam is given special consideration that Christianity does not. Christianity is banned during expressions of individual opinion, yet Islam is celebrated in the classroom.

Another question raised here is to what extent is a state facility responsible for providing resources, such as classroom space, for the free exercise of religion. Some might contend that even providing facilities for religious practice is a violation of the rights of the non-spiritual tax-payer, and a clear case of the state establishing a preference toward spirituality. Or is the state forced to do this if it forces students to attend a public institution in the first place?
The federal Equal Access Act requires that extracurricular school clubs, religious and non-religious, be treated equally.
If school facilities are used for various non-instructional, school club reasons, then it does seem acceptable that officials not discriminate against (or for) these clubs on the basis of religion. But in this case, we are talking about a classroom, during class-time, cutting into other students' instructional time. The muslim prayers happened not during the non-instructional free time (recess, lunch, free period) which are part of school hours, but in class. So, here, the facilities and resources are being grossly misused. These facilities and the time of the state-employed teachers are to be used for educational purposes during instructional time. During breaks, they should be open to all, or at least be made available for all to reserve, for religious or non-religious. Even setting aside a free space for muslims during a specific time shows a preference and violates the rights of all other non-muslim students.

Oddly, the left has fought for years to keep religion, or at least Christianity, out of the public schools, to the point of not allowing students to speak freely during class or school time about their religious convictions, yet now the left seems to be all for bending over backwards and providing special treatment and facilities to non-Christian religions. A double-standard indeed. And, by any stretch of the imagination, an unfair, unequal treatment.

In the end, this shows one of the many challenges and problems of a public, rather than private, education system that all, even those without children utilizing these services, are expected to pay into. A public education system is part of the state, and must be unbiased in its treatment of students.

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