Keep your religion private! Disrobing the public square, in Europe and America

29 Jan

Good article from the eminent sociologist Peter Berger:

The Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University publishes a very informative electronic newsletter about religious developments all over the world. On January 12, 2013, the newsletter carried a story originally published in the Buffalo News, about Joelle Silver, a high school science teacher in a community in upstate New York called Cheektowaga.  This melodiously named place, now a suburb of Buffalo, is located in the general vicinity of the so-called Burnt-Over District, which in the nineteenth century was a hotbed of Protestant revivals and other charismatic movements (the Mormons originated in the same neighborhood). Silver (a photo shows her to be an attractive young woman) is a committed Evangelical Christian, thus more or less in continuity with the regional religious history (although the town now has a large Polish community unlikely to be strongly Protestant).

It so happens that Cheektowaga, or at least its high school, also contains a militantly secularist teenager. This individual (no name given in the story) took umbrage at Silver’s displaying a variety of religious objects in the classroom, including posters with religious messages and a “prayer request box” belonging to a students’ Bible study group. The offended student alerted the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a militantly secularist organization operating out of Madison, Wisconsin. In response to its intervention the school ordered Silver to remove her religious materials from the classroom.

Silver sued the school authorities in U.S. district court for violating her constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. Her suit was supported by the American Freedom Law Center, a foundation with headquarters in Ann Arbor, Michigan, self-described as the “first truly authentic Judeo-Christian public interest law firm”. Both organizations engage in a mix of litigation and advocacy (respectively,  of “nontheism” and of the Judeo-Christian values supposedly foundational for American democracy). As part of its advocacy, the “nontheist” organization promotes signs wishing people “a happy Solstice” to replace Christmas messages. (I trust that they don’t put any of their signs up on public property, since someone might then sue them on the grounds that worship of the Solstice was part of the ancient Anglo-Saxon religion.)

Needless to say, both organizations deploy lawyers. Rebecca Markert, an attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation”, said: “Public employees, including teachers, have to act neutrally with regard to religion. They cannot push any religion.” Robert Muise, an attorney with the American Freedom Law Center, countered: “They essentially want her to cease being a Christian once she enters school district property.” He added that the other side regards any religious reference in schools “as if it’s some disease that has to be eradicated”. Dennis Kane, the school district superintendent, made a comment that is undoubtedly a correct (if you will, “neutral”) assessment of the situation—to the effect that the district was caught in the middle of a dispute between “two big special-interest groups”, and that it would be sued regardless of what it did or didn’t do.

Full article

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