Thursday, March 13, 2008


A couple of weeks ago I was listening to the NPR podcast on religion. The story, at first, confused me. It was about how women in Turkey, an Islamic country, have finally won the right to wear head scarves in public places.


Apparently Turkey, which has a strict separation of church and state like the rest of Europe, has never allowed any form of religious expression in its public buildings, such as universities. The head scarf counts as a form of religious expression. Conservative Muslims have won a victory to be public about their faith. Women's rights advocates are split on the issue--some say it is a huge step forward that women have lobbied to be able to do this and now they can, others say it is a huge step backward toward a government controlled by conservative clerics who were also pushing for this to pass.

My husband and I spoke about this story this morning over breakfast, and how the idea that Church and State should be separate is fundamental to democracy, and therefore to our right to practice the religion that we choose. Ironic, that. The tricky part is that the extent to which they should be separate means different things to different people.

When I was in high school (yes, yes, living in 1993 again for a minute, bear with me), there was a landmark case that went before the Supreme Court that I knew only sketchy details about: details given to me by a very conservative government teacher. The upshot of the case was that a suit was brought before the Court by the ACLU in which the Court determined that it was unconstitutional to perform various religious practices at public forums. Local ACLU chapters all over the country threatened to sue schools attempting to hold prayers at their graduations in spite of the ruling.

The ruling made me mad, despite not being that overtly religious, and having lots of friends who were probably more atheistic than other-religioned. I wrote a speech, very loosely based on facts with a few "historical quotes" (or at least here say quotes) thrown in. I won many awards for myself and our debate team with that angry and eloquent speech. I chafed when we studied President Benson's pride talk in Seminary about where he said that civil disobedience and breaking the laws of the land was a form of pride, as some of us began looking at ways to go ahead and pray at graduation anyway. After all, the Supreme Court had effectively legislated from the bench, right? That didn't make it a law.

We did pray at our graduation. Despite threats of withheld diplomas if we did so, most of our class broke into a circle just before marching onto the field and one of our class officers prayed very loudly. Many who didn't care about the issue, happily joined in, it was a just a prayer, but it was one last act of high school defiance so it was worth doing. There were 1000 students in my graduating class. No diplomas were withheld for the prayer.

Now to the point in my title. Some years later, living in Texas, I picked up a random copy of a magazine (no idea which) that was some years old. There was an article in the magazine about the case. I thought it looked interesting and began to read. In that half and hour, my eyes were open in a way that months of lobbying and speech-making had never done.

The case, which eventually made it to the Supreme Court in the early 90's, actually began a few years earlier in South Texas. A Mormon girl was attending a high school with a strong born again Christian, particularly Baptist, population. She did not have a lot of friends, most students at the school thought she was a member of a cult and headed straight for Hell. The students set about actively trying to convert her, as they did other "non-believers" at the school. One of the favorite tactics, encouraged by a local minister, was to share a free copy of the Bible. The girl was pressed time and again at school to take a Bible. She always refused, saying that she had one at home, which she did.

Well, from there, the simple offer of conversion turned to outright harassment. When she sought help from a trusted teacher she was told, "I don't see what the big deal is; just take the Bible." She was effectively told the same thing by a school principal frustrated by what he saw as her stubbornness. School became a living nightmare for this girl, and she began to receive threats. There was another girl at the school, Catholic by birth but not really a believer, who was taking similar harassment and the two became friends.

When nobody at the school or even district level would satisfy the parents of the two girls in regard to the bullying, they sought an attorney who would take their case. The ACLU, of course, jumped all over it. Rather than focus on the Bible issue--probably protected under free speech--they instead looked at the broader school community for practices that were clearer violations of a separate church and state. The second amendment is a little tricky: it is true that laws cannot be passed to permit a person from freely exercising their religion, but a government entity also cannot do anything that suggests they are trying to establish a religion either. The ACLU learned that the community held a prayer prior to every football game in the school's stadium: this invocation was always given by one of a small handful of Christian preachers from an area church. There were other things going on in the community too, but this prayer issue became the hot-button topic.

Anyway, the aftermath of one little Mormon girl trying to just practice her religion as well as get a free, fair and safe public education ended up with national repercussions. As I read that article, I began to walk two moons in her moccasins. What if that girl had been me? Or my daughter? Or a friend? Would I have been so critical of their decision to seek legal help when all efforts at a local fix had been thwarted? How would I react to the emotional bullying that girl had been given? And while the ACLU probably hoped to get just the right, high-profile case to make their point in a national court, I doubt that girl and her parents expected such a long, drawn-out battle.

Before somebody misunderstands, I'm not necessarily saying that prayer and religious expression in public places is bad (aside: the Ten Commandments on county courthouses, etc. kind of drives me nuts, though. Our laws are really not based on most of the commandments. Not. At. All. Adultery isn't criminal. Coveting and various forms of idolatry are practically encouraged by a capitalist society. Swearing? Great! Lying? Everyone's doin' it, just don't do it under oath. Okay, the biggies--stealing, murder--those still carry some weight, but the rest? I can appreciate it is more a Judeo-Christian value symbol, but I still think those who are pushing so hard just need to give it a rest. End aside.), and I think that communities need some local control and discretion regarding how these issues are approached. However, now that I've moved around some and seen a little bit more about what it means to be a minority (mostly religiously/culturally, though I taught at a school where it was racially also), I can see that keeping religion, particularly practice, not fundamental decency or morals, out of public life is the very thing that protects those of us who DO choose to practice our religions.

The religious litmus test that so many candidates now must pass--Republican or Democrat--is not what our founders had in mind. I think the question "Is ____ a fundamentally good person?" is very different than "Is ___ a religious person?" It is important to remember, for all their intelligence, morality and inspiration, most of our founding fathers were not religious. They didn't go as far as Marx ("religion is the opiate of the people") but they believed in humanity's ability to rise above any circumstance through study, hard work and good governance. Most of them believed that God had basically set the world spinning and then walked away.

I guess all of these thoughts above are why I'm nervous to chain my wagon to the Conservative Christian voting block. I'd like an America where everyone is welcome.


FoxyJ said...

I like this post--I agree with everything you said. I think that's part of why I feel uncomfortable with so much focus on candidate's religion, because we tend to use religion as a way of judging people when it often has no correlation with their actual value system or voting record. Also, we need to encourage more public discourse about good morality apart from religion. Over the years we've come to get scared of any talk about "values" in places like schools, but most people I know who aren't religious or even atheistic still want people to respect others, to share, and to have some decency. I've never lived anywhere that had prayer at school events--that seems so strange to me!

Science Teacher Mommy said...

The problem is that people may not be all that opposed to teaching some kind of value-system in school, as long as it wasn't co-opted as a way to teach a specific religion. Another problem is that there is no time at school to teach values. Why? Because the Conservative (Christian) government has put such rigorous testing procedures in place there is no time for anything but math and reading.

Christie said...

I was driving home from errands today and saw a crow and a seagull fighting over a bit of something. I was reminded of race relations, but religious bickering would be an apt analogy as well.

Crows and seagulls are both loud obnoxious birds, as are some people on both sides of the religious or race issues. I tried to think of other birds that are black and white. Red-wing blackbirds came to mind. I love their call and their shiny black wings. A turtle dove is also a mostly white bird with a soft, beautiful call. Each bird goes about it's own business. Does its own thing most of the time. But if a large bird of prey, a hawk or crow for example, goes to attack a blackbird's next, they'll pester and peck at the hawk to drive it away. Just like the mormon girls' parents did after near-constant heckling.

By and large we can be like doves and blackbirds -- quietly going about our business. But sometimes we have to say something about the crows and seagulls that are making life miserable for others. (i.e. those disgusting LDS missionaries who desecrated the church and statue in Colorado). No organization is exempt from having members who are junk feeders.

Desmama said...

STM, this post was so interesting, and, as with most your posts, I find I have to read and re-read to really mull it all over. In short, it's like reading a good book or watching a good movie. It makes me think, and I like that.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

Christie, lovely analogy. Over the years, I've thought of the situation and think I'd have probably built my nest elsewhere before I went to the ACLU, who, to extend your metaphor, are probably vultures. :)

What LDS missionaries?

And, Desmama, you made my day.

Yankee Girl said...

Once again you have given us thoughtful and well crafted post. Loved it. said...

I had a BIG debate about this topic with a person in my government class (which was online) I suspeted that they were LDS but never came out and asked... they couldn't understand at all where prayer in school could be bad... I went to school with these pushy baptists so I know. It just isn't fair to allow religion to be forced down people's throats at a place they are required to be.