The law is a … nether-region …

Ed Brayton made a post about two court cases that the Supreme Court has refused to hear, and he’s happy that the Court has in some sense upheld them:

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court denied certiorari in Nampa Classical Academy v. Goesling… In the case, the 9th Circuit upheld Idaho’s decision to bar publicly funded charter schools from using religious texts in the classroom, even for teaching of secular subjects. The 9th Circuit held that the First Amendment’s speech clause does not give charter school teachers, students, or parents a right to have such texts included as part of the school curriculum…

The Supreme Court also denied review in Johnson v. Poway Unified School District. In the case, the 9th Circuit rejected claims by a high school calculus teacher that his California school district violated his free speech rights, as well as the Establishment Clause and Equal Protection clause, when it required him to remove large banners he had posted in his classroom that carried historic and patriotic slogans, all mentioning God or the Creator.

So, let’s start with the second one. To me, this is a gray area. That they all mentioned God or the Creator might well be a problem, since it would be promoting at least a semi-religious view. So, if a mixed set would pass muster, this isn’t that big a problem. But then if, say, someone wanted to post quotes from a specific person and that person happened to be religious and so use those terms, would that be a problem? Ultimately, there’s no way to make a blanket judgement about this, and so it has to be done on a case-by-case basis. It’s not obvious to me from the short description here that this was such a case, but it well could be.

The first one, however, is a terrible decision, and one the Supreme Court should have reviewed. What this decision does is state that essentially even if a religious text is relevant to a secular subject, you can’t use the religious text in the classroom. How in the world is this treating religion like everything else? And what counts as a religious text? If I want to use Aquinas or Augustine in a philosophy class introducing philosophy of religion– they do have them outside of universities, right? — would that be illegal? If we’re talking ethics and I want to examine the ethics of some religions, or that have religious bases, can I actually use the texts that talk about them? Or is it impossible for me to talk about religion at all, even in a context where it isn’t being specifically promoted, or discussed as one of a number of options? If I want to talk about the impact of religion on some historical event, can I use a religious text to describe it? Ultimately, this decision, at least from the short description, again seems to be saying that you can’t use a religious text in a school even when that text is directly relevant and may well be the best source to talk about the subject you’re trying to teach. But secularism is supposed to be about treating religion like everything else, and we can always use the best text for a subject … unless it’s religious, at which point we can’t.

It’s this sort of thing that bugged me about the Jessica Alquist case again, although I barely paid attention to it. It sounded like the prayer banner was something that was put up as part of some big project, and simply included. Thus, it was a traditional thing and should have gained the label of an old school tradition. Surely anything that was part of a school tradition can be maintained without us thinking that it has to be something that’s advocated? Again, you can have all the traditions you want … unless they happen to have some link to religion, at which point it’s just terrible and horrible and a violation of your rights. One wonders what would happen if as part of a joint venture between a school and a local Church the Church had sent over a banner commemorating the event and included “God” in it. Would that be allowed to be hung alongside all the secular ones? And do you think it would matter if one of those secular banners contained explicitly atheistic language or ideas? Or would even working with a religious group be a problem?

These sorts of decisions are what make a lot of people apprehensive about a so-called secular society. It seems like the goal is not to treat religion either like everything else or even like the protected right it is, but to get it completely out of public life so that no one who is religious will dare to mention it except while huddled in their own homes or their churches, while the good “secular” values get free reign to run things as they see fit. But those secular values are no better evidenced or argued than the religious ones, and so this seems like an attempt to impose secular values not by convincing people that they are right, but by silencing dissenters. And that never ends well.


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