Wednesday, May 11, 2005

"An atmosphere-changing tool"

Gospel choir class at Chatham Central High School, NC (on the southern border of Orange County).

I would have a difficult time viewing this as neutral with respect to religion. I think it would need to meet that criteria (or the 3 criteria of Lemon) as this is a class, not a student-directed club. Perhaps if more than half the songs were non-religious in nature or contained a range of songs from different religions, it might be viewed as such. Typically, gospel choirs sing all or almost all religious songs and these are all from one religion.

In contrast, if a school provides a limited public forum in which student-directed clubs are allowed, then a gospel choir would be OK, provided it adheres to the provisions of the Equal Access Act.

The newspaper article presents arguements in favor of the gospel choir - that it contributed to easing of racial tensions, for example. Was not the choir present at the school during the period of racial tensions but as a club instead of a class? And does it really follow that making the club a class (with 28 students out of 450) caused an easing of racial tensions? In any case, the EC is not about the worth of religion. It is about the problems that arise if the line is not respected. If the reporter or school principal would like, I would be happy to explain this but for a more authoritative source I would suggest the ACLU or First Amendment Center.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Missing the Trees for the Forest

I am still contemplating the Establishment Clause of the constitution and I have noticed something. Consider these three cases in point.

1. Is there a fundamental difference between a cross in the seal of LA County and a church (with a cross) in a mural paid for by the Town of Chapel Hill and installed in a town-owned building that contains a church with a cross? (By the way, there is another recognizable religious symbol in the mural, see if you can find it. Hint: don't bother telling me this is what the servings look like at the shelter - they don't. Answer here)
2. Is a bible study curriculum not cultural but gospel choir performances of religious songs in elementary schools are?
3. Can someone object to a privately owned newspaper using the heading "Faith and Family" yet be silent to an event organized and funded by the Town of Chapel Hill that included both gospel music and prayer? Yes, I realize the objection to the newspaper heading is on political grounds but that retort is hollow knowing that the person making the objection to the newspaper heading was involved in planning the latter event that presents EC issues.

Perhaps a pattern. Do prominent voices discuss this issue when it applies to those far away (geographically and/or on the ideology spectrum) but show an apparent reluctance to make the same principled points when the issue is closer to home? This might simply be a difference in the scope of focus involved. After all, many of the locals have a national or international perspective. Nothing wrong with that. There is also the consideration that we are more likely to give lattitude to people we know, work with, and trust from personal knowledge but are more skeptical of those more remote. Perhaps that is self evident.

A writer on another local blog (who I do not know) had this to say on #3.

It’s interesting to compare this thread [on the newspaper using the "Faith and Family" heading] to the one on MLK Blvd name change. In one case we have a privite sector paper giving a little space to religion. Perhaps good bussiness; perhaps bad; but still thier bussiness. Many observers have some kind of problem with it. At the MLK event, three of the four music acts were christian. Some of the speakers were clergy and I could have sworn I heard prayer. Oh yeah, the government set it up. I never heard anyone complain. Perhaps the problem is the Republican God Vs. the Democratic one. Perhaps we hate the God of the white people but love the black peoples God. I can’t tell just where Dan Coleman stands on the Islamic God but I’ll bet he’s troubled with Christians who hate Allah.

Though these comments may be more cynical than necessary, it is very difficult to understand the apparent disparity in how this issue is handled by those who have responsibility to the public good, such as elected and appointed public officials. Do not forget the other similarity among these three points - they all are incursions against the Establishment Clause by the majority religion, which was precisely the rationale for the EC.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Cultural or Religious?

Sally Greene has another post and comment (where do you find the time, Sally?) on the separation of church and state. A bible study course sponsored by a Greensboro, NC group is being presented to public schools as a cultural teaching. This is exactly the same rationale that I have recently received when pointing out the inappropriateness of public elementary schools inviting a Gospel Choir to perform at a school-sponsored event. While religion is cultural, it is also religious.

Most, if not all, Gospel Choirs have repertoires that are predominantly religious in nature and represent one particular religion. The foundation of Gospel Choirs is from religion. In contrast, the scope of religion in a Gospel Choir is not similar to religious references we find in many other parts of the curriculum. In particular, I do not remember "The Diary of Anne Frank" to be a religious work, as was suggested to me for comparison in the justifcation for the cultural nature of Gospel Choirs. My faint remembrance of the Diary as a non-religious work seems to also be the impression of at least one CliffNotes-like reviewer.

The holidays provide some welcome festivity to the household. It is important that Anne's family celebrates St. Nicholas Day--traditionally a pagan, and then Christian holiday. (Black Peter is the companion of Father Christmas, or Santa Claus.) The fact that they celebrate St. Nicholas Day--even more than Chanukah, at least for this year--shows how assimilated the Franks are into Gentile Dutch society. While this may explain why Anne seldom identifies with other Jews (beyond persecution, of course), it is this very element of her diary that troubles some Jewish critics. David B. Green notes that "being Jewish seems to have been largely tangential to Anne's sense of self, even as the tightening noose of the Nazi occupation reminded her daily that her fate was tethered to her Jewishness" and complains that if Anne had not suffered from "[a] lack of ethnicity," her diary might not have been the overwhelming classic that it is.

The First Amendment Center summarizes the current interpretation of the Establishment Clause thus:

Although the Court’s interpretation of the establishment clause is in flux, it is likely that for the foreseeable future a majority of the justices will continue to view government neutrality toward religion as the guiding principle. Neutrality means not favoring one religion over another, not favoring religion over non-religion and vice versa.

Neutrality might be including a variety of religious perspectives in a school sponsored event, but it does not include a single religious group.

Let us not forget why the founders included the Establishment Clause. "...the framers of the First Amendment recognized that when the roles of the government and religion are intertwined, the result too often has been bloodshed or oppression."