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Advocatus Diaboli

by Tom Flynn

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 11, Number 4.

Requiem For A Juggernaut

Last issue, SHB got tough on President Clinton's July 12 Vienna, Virginia, speech. We weren't alone; the day after the speech, the New York Times editorialized: "Mr. Clinton's emphasis on the permissive rather than the protective aspects of the First Amendment was troubling and dangerous. ... Mr. Clinton invites proselytizers to turn schools into religion-saturated environments."

Edward Tabash's commentary in this issue makes an eloquent case for viewing the speech as Clinton's master stroke against the Religious Right. Here's why I believe the speech was if unintentionally the sharpest single blow against secularism, from any quarter, in the last thirty years.

Clinton vigorously affirmed the broad range of religious freedoms public school students enjoy. Which is to say, he took a "safe" reading of the limits of religious expression under current law, endorsed it, and at least by implication disclaimed any interest in making public schools more secular than they are right now. That's fine for a church-state middle-of-the-roader who views today's as the best of all possible worlds. If, like me, you're a strong separationist who believes that the work of secularizing America's public schools is only about a third done, Vienna was a disaster.

The late Chief Justice Burger once wrote: "A certain momentum develops in constitutional theory and it can be a downhill thrust easily set in motion but difficult to stop." Ever since the Supreme Court ended official public school prayers and Bible reading (Engel v. Vitale, 1962) the pace of secularization has been relentless. Its momentum was unmistakable and firmly aimed at denuding the public square. Progressive milestones in areas beyond church-state separation Roe v. Wade, second-wave feminism, gay rights, to name a few attest to the same powerful surge. In education Christmas pageants withered, school holidays received more secular names, sensitivity toward religious minorities blossomed. Educators came to realize that being religion-neutral also meant being value-neutral. As early as the 70s, textbook publishers were removing even historical references to religion from their new editions. Though conservatives viewed these developments with horror, no one denied the existence or the power of the secularizing momentum. People took it so much for granted that they often overestimated its progress. A 1994 poll found that 55 percent of Americans thought it was already unlawful for public school students to pray privately!

"Momentum," hell. What we had from 1962 on was a juggernaut of secularization that seemed likely to do to religion in schools what Abraham Lincoln had wanted to do to slavery before the Civil War: to "place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction." The juggernaut started losing steam by, say 1993. Still, secular humanists could not be blamed for assuming that secularization would press forward no matter what they did or didn't do to help.

When conservatives complained about "schools without prayer," we would parry by insisting that "individual, voluntary prayer is not unconstitutional." It always killed me to leave off the "not yet." But why articulate our whole agenda if stopping short would make us more popular? It was so easy to trust the juggernaut, to trust that schools would become "religion free" all by themselves.

Tabash and others may be right that the Vienna speech blunted Republican hopes for a school prayer amendment. But it did so at a terrible price: Clinton killed the juggernaut. In his Vienna speech Clinton apotheized the status quo. On our behalf, he repudiated any wish to go further with secularizing reforms. Thanks a lot, Bill.

It's time to quit dodging and argue openly that for the Constitution's promise to be achieved in a polycreedal society, public schools must become just what Clinton said they're not: religion free, value-neutral zones. Student-initiated prayer, extracurricular Bible clubs, private religious expression among students, even the wearing of clothing or accessories that incorporate religious symbols all must go. That's been my real agenda all along, probably yours too.

Why a ban? Consider first that the government compels school attendance. Second, while most of the clauses of the First Amendment apply equally to freedom of religion, the press, assembly, and so on, the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses pertain only to religion, restricting the state more tightly in matters of religion than anywhere else. In operating the schools it compels children to attend, for government merely to refrain from promoting this creed or that is not enough. Government must take extraordinary measures to ensure that schools never even offend any pupil on religious grounds.

Offense is inevitable when teachers make students join in prayer, as Engel v. Vitale recognized. But religious speech is no less likely to offend when initiated by other students. If a Christian student galls, say, Hindu peers by proselytizing or wearing clothing that disagreeably reminds the Hindus of their minority status, the school is still responsible. No, the teacher didn't denigrate their Hinduism. But the government established the venue in which the abuse occurred, and compelled the Hindu students to be there! Contrary to Tabash, "a child who clutches a bible, or who visibly makes the sign of the cross before a math test" most certainly and terribly is "trampling upon the rights of any other child." No, current law does not recognize this. But for thirty years many of hoped even expected that it someday would. Better that all students hang their faiths on a hook at the schoolhouse door than that schools continue to function as mechanisms for delivering students of minority religions (and of none) up for oppression whether by agents of the state or by their peers.

Of course, President Clinton thinks schools should not be religion-free zones. The trouble is that while struggling to outflank the religious right, he said so. He served notice that anyone who still clings to the supposedly-outmoded vision of a naked public square can be dismissed as some kind of anti-religious nut. He licensed his opponents and ours to label us that way. At the very least, Clinton has stilled the juggernaut that coursed for thirty years in the direction of a more secular America.

No longer can we expect our agenda to achieve itself. The idea of wholly secular schools won't even stay on the table unless we learn to articulate it all, fearlessly and completely. Politically impractical as they may seem right now, we know that religion-free schools are the appropriate response to American diversity. After Vienna, it's time for secular humanists to speak the hell up!

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This page was last updated 12/04/2003

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