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
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historical references to religion from their new editions.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 —
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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