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August 1, 2002

God made idiots for practice, then… From the Boston Globe, via the Pew Forum (the original Globe story having migrated into their pay section):
To 7-year-old Laura M. Greska, it made perfect sense to bring a book about Jesus Christ to her second-grade holiday show-and-tell. But her teacher barred her from reading aloud from “The First Christmas,” saying its religious content made it inappropriate.

Now, Greska’s parents have sued the Leominster school system in a federal lawsuit that cites the religious rights of students. The lawsuit, filed yesterday in US District Court in Worcester, claims that school officials violated Greska’s constitutional right to freedom of speech and religion. “This is a troubling example of a school district that is clearly exhibiting hostility toward religion,” said Vincent McCarthy, the Greskas’ lawyer and senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a Virginia Beach-based law and education group founded in 1991 by Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson.

School officials are often unsure when religious material can enter the classroom, civil libertarians and religious rights groups agree, underscoring the lack of clear guidelines and knowledge of law that hampers some educators.

What, exactly, is so hard to understand here? (1) Don’t compel religious observances or practices from children in the public schools. (2) Children in the public schools have as much right to observe, and talk about, their religions as adults do.

The inability of some so-called “educators” to grasp this doesn’t tell us there’s a “lack of clear guidelines.” It tells is that a lot of “educators” have the brains of potted plants.

(Spotted by “Jeanne D’Arc” of the excellent blog Body and Soul, recommended today by Ted Barlow. Read “Jeanne” for a much more sympathetic take on the challenges faced by educators. I grant that I’m impatient and that more genuinely nuanced problems probably arise around the question of religion in the schools. I also think a lot of “educators” are badly in need of a swift kick in the rear to remind them that children have actual rights, just as if they were, you know, people.) [01:26 PM]

Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on God made idiots for practice, then...:

Derek James ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2002, 01:57 PM:

Yup...I completely concur.

The line seems painfully, obviously clear (having been a teacher myself). A student should clearly be able to express their religious views (unless doing so disrupts the classroom environment). Learning about various religions is not a violation (and is in fact vital). The UNC lawsuit (there's a link on the page you referenced) is absurd.

When a ward of the state leads students in religious ceremony (such as prayer...or a pledge that explicitly recognizes a god that lords over and protects America), that line is crossed.

It's the difference between a teacher talking about what others believe as opposed to presenting a religious viewpoint as truth.

Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2002, 03:03 PM:

I agree, but if Christian kids have that right, it follows that everyone else does too.

I doubt if parents would be too pleased, in most districts, if the book was about Ganesha. Or if it was an issue of HAM (which is the children's version of Green Egg, get it?). In those cases, I bet the school would be sued, or at least castigated, for allowing it.

Christianity has "special rights" in this country, despite all sorts of constitutional protestations to the contrary. If you don't believe it, try complaining about your local church serving alcohol to minors, and see if the cops run down to bust them.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2002, 03:27 PM:

Christopher, I doubt you mean to suggest that the appropriate remedy is to take away the religious rights of Christians -- or, even more pertinently, to pick on a seven-year-old.

There seems to be a notion--I'm not attributing this to you--that the only fair solution to the "problem" of religion in the public schools is to ban every voluntary expression of it. This is, to use the precise technical term, nuts.

I'm a pretty severe separation-of-church-and-state guy. I think compelling kids to recite the "under God" Pledge is a travesty. I think judges who put the Ten Commandments in their courtrooms need to be sent back to high-school civics class. I have plenty of sympathy with non-Christians who object to town-financed creches in the public square.

But I think telling children they can't talk about religion on their own steam, that they mustn't (for instance) refer to it in a show-and-tell presentation, is unhinged. To repeat: Kids have rights. They have the right to the civil expression of their views, just like the rest of us. If we accept that as a first principle, then the seven-year-old's voluntary reading of a Christian text can be appreciated for its sincerity and used as a springboard for a discusssion of differences and tolerance. Conversely, if we don't accept this, then the public schools can be an cockpit for endless proxy battles over everyone's cultural and religious resentments, battles conducted by adults who value the chips on their shoulders more than they value their own children. Oh, wait, that's what we have right now.

Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2002, 05:03 PM:

No, I agree. But the right of a Pagan child to read from the Charge of the Goddess must also be defended. And more vigorously, because it would be under much more attack.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2002, 05:11 PM:

I don't know whether I agree with "more vigorously". Are you saying it's particulalry important to defend civil liberties on the fringes of the socially acceptable? That's why the ACLU often defends unpopular people, and of course I agree. Are you saying that individuals deserve less attention to injustices done them if they happen to be members of some larger category? I don't agree. Individuals are individuals before they're epitomes of the categories we choose to place them in. That's why we talk about "individual rights."

Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: August 01, 2002, 06:53 PM:

"More vigorously" in your first sense, but also in the sense that it will require more energy to defend them. Defending a Christian child and a Pagan one are equally laudable goals. I was just saying that defending the Pagan one will be more work.

Swimming upstream and all.

A devoutly Roman Catholic woman I once knew told me this story: she'd been working in an office that was predominantly Orthodox Jewish, and they asked her to work on a Sunday -- Easter Sunday. She refused, and had to threaten them with HR to get them to back off.

Had she been an Orthodox Jew working in a predominantly RC office, she might have had similar trouble getting Yom Kippur off. But she was shocked to have to fight for it, which her imaginary Jewish counterpart might not have been.

All valid ethical formulations are commutative. Something a lot of people have trouble remembering. I don't, though, and neither do you!

Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2002, 10:50 AM:

Re the idea that an Orthodox Jew in an RC office might have trouble getting off work for Yom Kippur . . .

Orthodox or not, many Jews have had trouble and continue to have trouble taking off for the High Holidays. Especially when they work for firms with strict policies about the use of personal or sick days.

And I guarantee you some of them have had to do a lot of fighting about it.

I'm still waiting for "official" calendars to be changed so that Catholics have to use their personal days for things like Good Friday, just as Jews must for the High Holy Days and people of other faiths must for their own major holidays.


Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2002, 11:41 AM:

I think Melissa Singer, above, is the first of my Tor colleagues (leaving aside Teresa) to post here. Welcome!

One "official" calendar that's pretty ecumenical is the New York City street cleaning schedule. "Yay! We don't have to move our car! It's the Muslim festival of Idul-Fitr!" But that's New York City.

Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2002, 12:56 PM:

Good Friday? I want them to have to use vacation for CHRISTMAS.

But that's a national holiday. Is there a single national holiday based on the festival of any other religion?

Not in the US. Outside the US, May 1 is Labor Day (which comes from Beltane by a circuitous route, and probably nobody knew about it).

Chloe ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2002, 12:56 PM:

I don't even know how anyone could compare the pledge issue to this "show & tell" session issue. They're obviously two completely different things, not related at all.
And it's obvious to me because I think "under god" ought to be taken out of a "pledge to a national flag", and I think this young student was unfairly stopped.
First off, if that teacher was so concerned with keeping religion out of the classroom, she shouldn't have had an assignment involving CHRISTMAS. Second, the stories of Jesus can, and are, viewed as not just religious, but historical.

Anyway, I think there's a LOT of truth to the concept of the religious double-standard. Christians ARE favoured in the U.S. from the way I see it.
Not to go off on a tangent... but it's similar situation to something being debated in my area - the question of community built skateboarding park. People are throwing fits over it... yet nobody cuts up rough when a baseball field is built... ?
I think pagans are the skateboarding parks of religion.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2002, 02:34 PM:

Christopher:

Many people, both secular and religious, agree that the American celebration of Christmas has amazingly little to do with Christianity. I don't even think of it as a religious holiday any more, though I did when I was a Christian. Really, Santamas is a religion of its own now, complete with its own god, rituals, and symbols which are independent of Christianity and any other specific terrestrial religion though it draws from several of them.

From the other end of the question, Thanksgiving has its roots in a specific celebration by a specific religious community, and the "thanks" being offered are a prayer, but that's kind of pushing it.

Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2002, 03:48 PM:

Sorry, Kevin, but you've just hit one of my hot buttons. "Many people" may consider Christmas to be a secular holiday, but I can assure you that "many" do not, particularly "many" of the six million Jews who live in the US and who get awfully tired of people asking why they don't celebrate Christmas or believe in Santa.

Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2002, 04:24 PM:

I like the idea of Pagans as the Skaterboys of religion (not quite what you said, but that's how I'm gonna think of it).

But hotdog skateboarding is actually dangerous. One of our interns at the office was a skaterboy, he says, "until I cracked my head open. Then I quit for good."

If the idea of the park is somewhere "safe" where they can do it, it's probably a waste of money. The real skaterboy will go back to the highway ramp. Part of the point, I'm convinced, is to risk serious injury.

Paganism is not dangerous. Not that way, anyway. Although we DO get to some scary places, and dig into some stuff the White Light Newage (rhymes with sewage) people scurry away from like the pathetic cowards they are... (Mostly kidding here, OK?)

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2002, 04:34 PM:

Um. Not sure that I like the "pathetic cowards" bit.

Melissa's right. It's true that Christmas has become, to a great extent, a secular holiday. It's also true that this doesn't mean lots of non-Christians (and unreligious people) don't feel kind of put upon by the several-month assault of Christmas.

It's mostly true that we've all been through these arguments before. I didn't post what I posted in order to encourage a multivalent discussion of religious and secular grudges! I posted it in order to make the point that children have rights.

John Farrell ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2002, 04:35 PM:

Hmm. I think Melissa has a good point, but in defense of Kevin, I think in terms of sheer numbers nationwide, his "many people" are a lot more than Melissa's "many people."

Which is a round-about way of pointing out that, as a matter of historical accident, if you will, we live in a country that was not so long ago founded by Christians. To someone born and raised in Beijing, this country probably still seems saturated with Christianity--as well as the people in it, whether they go to church, celebrate Christmas, or not. Just consider how friendly the Chinese government is to the Catholic Church.

I don't mean to sound like "Hey, that's the way it is here, so tough." That kind of flippancy on the part of the "majority" has always pissed me off. But, short of a mass conversion of millions of Americans to agnosticism and/or atheism, I don't see Christmas disappearing from the calendar anytime soon....

Lydia Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2002, 04:42 PM:

IJWTS that failing to defend the rights of the majority is no way to defend the rights of the minorities. It's darn counter-productive, is what it is. If the solution to bad speech is more speech, then surely the solution to inequity is more equity.

Chloe ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2002, 04:51 PM:

Kevin:

Most of those people who don't think Christmas has much to do with religion anymore would still identify themselves as Christians if someone asked their religion.

Christopher:

Skiing is also dangerous. So is biking. So is football. So is ice skating. So is ice hockey. So are a lot of sports that are featured in the Olympics. Americans in their 30s will remember the ABC Sports trailer - "The Agony of defeat..."

So please, enough with the hotdogging skateboarding is dangerous. heh.

My point was that these dangerous sports are more acceptable... their danger isn't even thought of in the terms that skateboarding is thought of as dangerous - they're just plain acceptable, so their danger seems to be a non-issue. Not so with skateboarding. (Furthermore, better that they injure themselves in a skateboarding park than in a car park.)

But I digress...

My tie-in with religion here is that Christians can be militant extremists who do "weird" or even crazy things. Christians can be dangerous... And so can Pagans. But a lot of people think Pagans ARE dangerous. Just ask your average Baptist living in the Bible Belt, and you're likely to hear a plethora of witch-related stereotypes for Pagans.

Anyway...

Patrick:

There's only one thing you can control... what YOU say on a topic. Unless you're willing to start deleting comments left at your site, I'm afraid you have to accept the fact you can't control what tangents a conversation will sail off onto. ;)

John:

I don't think anybody wants to necessarily see Christmas taken off the (Christian) calendar. I think it's more that people of other religions would like their holidays ADDED.

Am I wrong, people?

Lydia Nickerson ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2002, 06:04 PM:

Chloe:

" I don't think anybody wants to necessarily see Christmas taken off the (Christian) calendar. I think it's more that people of other religions would like their holidays ADDED."

Well, I'd like to have it taken off the usual roster of holidays, along with most of the rest, if you want to know the truth. I think we should have a winter week-long holiday, a summer week-long holiday (both probably bracketing the soltices, though that does privilege pagans and Christians), and a handful of memorial days _actually_on_the_day_. Like, say, Independence Day being on July 4th. MLK's birthday, Washington's birthday, I'm sure I could toss up a couple more. My own favorite is Armistice Day, but that has become meaningless for a majority of the Usan population. We might celebrate the end of the Civil War, even, though that would surely be an even more political holiday than MLK's birthday. Failing that, how about going with one bank holiday a month?

I'm rambling. However, I don't really want more holidays, especially not more religious holidays, it's nothing but trouble.

Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2002, 06:10 PM:

Aw, come on Patrick! We haven't even gotten to the part where someone argues that a gentile wishing a Jew "Happy Hanukah" on any of the 357.25 days that aren't Hanukah constitutes a vicious gob of spittle in the eyes of Jews everywhere. That's my favorite!

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2002, 06:21 PM:

"We live in a country that was not so long ago founded by Christians." And some notable Deists and more than a few Jews.

"Unless you're willing to start deleting comments left at your site, I'm afraid you have to accept the fact you can't control what tangents a conversation will sail off onto." Likewise, I'm -- what's the phrase? -- "afraid you have to accept the fact" that I'll probably make my opinions about the conversation known.

Avram, well do I remember that one. Sheesh and double Sheesh.

Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: August 02, 2002, 06:26 PM:

I dimly recall that at some point during the Clinton administration, during one of the perennial spates of school-prayer controversy, some office in the executive branch-- I think it might actually have been the White House-- put out a memo listing its positions on what sorts of religious observance were and were not acceptable in public schools.

The memo was completely reasonable, quite clear, and generally in favor of personal religious expression while disapproving of coercion. My respect for the Clinton administration in these matters, which had been eroded by some sucking up to religious conservatives, went up a notch or two.

As far as I know, everyone ignored the memo. The teacher in this case certainly did.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2002, 12:43 AM:

Melissa: I chose the term "many" rather than "all" precisely because I'm quite aware that there are a lot of people who do think that Christmas is still primarily a Christian holiday. Heck, many of them are Christians, including the little girl at the start of this whole thread.

My primary point was not that Christmas doesn't have its roots in Christianity, nor that nobody still views it as a Christian holiday, but rather that there's another holiday which has emerged out of Christmas which has only a tangential relation to Christianity at all. This new holiday--Santamas, let's call it--is at least as different from Christmas as, oh, Easter is from Passover, to choose an example sure to ruffle no feathers.

Many people are upset by the fact that Santamas isn't a Christian holiday. I, as a non-Christian, am very happy to observe Santamas, though I rather wish it didn't eat up all of November and December and parts of October and January.

I was brought to mind of this dichotomy here because I suspect the teacher who staged a show-and-tell about Christmas was surprised to have a student actually talk about Christ. Doesn't that little girl know that this is a holiday about Santa, and presents, and trees?

Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2002, 02:04 AM:

I've been calling it Cashmas (or $mas), the American commerce holiday.

Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2002, 08:44 AM:

Melissa sez: Orthodox or not, many Jews have had trouble and continue to have trouble taking off for the High Holidays.

Yo, I know that. My point was they wouldn't be shocked by having to fight for it, because they belong to a less privileged religion. Still more privileged than Wicca though. I tell my bosses that I'm not going to be there on November 1st, no matter what - taking personal, vacation, whatever - and haven't had much trouble since the 80s. Back then I got fired just because my boss found out I was Wiccan.

Patrick sez: Um. Not sure that I like the "pathetic cowards" bit.

That's the part I was kidding about. Though I have been annoyed by "white-light Wiccans" celebrating what we call "elves and strawberries." They have a perfect right to do that, and I have a perfect right to make fun of them. I'd rather be able to deal ritually with things like grief and rage...I wonder what they did after 9/11? Probably pictured white light surrounding Osama bin Laden. (I'm not exaggerating; they probably did exactly that.)

About this whole Christmas thing, if you want to know what the end of that whole commercialization process looks like, look at Halloween. It's a very old thing, where people carved jackos out of turnips (no pumpkins in Ireland back then), and dressed in outlandish costumes. Treats were given as ancestor offerings (because who knew what was behind that mask?), and men and women wore each other's clothing.

At Samhain, the beginning of the dark of the year, the veil between the worlds is thin, and you can see the spirits of your ancestors. In modern Wicca (well, my coven), we use it to mourn and remember the dead.

Now it's just an excuse to sell candy and costumes.

So Christians, if you wanna keep Christmas Christian, better start fighting now. Though actually I thought that from a religious perspective Christmas is relatively minor; my Christian friends tell me that Easter (named for a European dawn-goddess, Eostre) is what Christianity is REALLY about.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2002, 09:57 AM:

You claim that Jews "wouldn't be shocked" about having to fight to take their holidays off. Wouldn't they be? I know a Jewish lady who's been working for the same boss for years. He's a tolerant, thoughtful guy, nobody's image of a bigot or an ignoramus. Every year she reminds him that she's going to take the high holy days off, and every year he acts surprised and says he supposes that's okay for Jews who are "observant." And this is a decent, tolerant guy. Is she "shocked" by this? Well, in some practical sense, no. In a deeper sense, yes, and rightly so. We can be used to something and still find it outrageous.

On other kinds of pagans: "They have a perfect right to do that, and I have a perfect right to make fun of them." Yes, well, and I have a perfect right to be put off when you do so.

Kevin, it's just possible that there are people for whom the Christmas holiday is both about the Nativity and "about Santa, and presents, and trees." There's a lot of fannish categorical hairsplitting going on in this thread, along with the usual fannish generalizations about what "Christians" (or even "your average Baptist living in the Bible Belt") believe.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2002, 10:33 AM:

Patrick: Yes, of course there are people for whom Christmas is about both Christ and presents. I'm not trying to be hairsplitting, or deny the varieties of ways in which people observe and react to the various December holidays. I'm just trying to share an observation I've found useful in the past--that a lot of people's actions and reactions make a lot more sense to me if viewed through a paradigm in which there are two very different sets of holiday observances called "Christmas", one of them explicitly Christian and one of them orthogonal to Christianity--compatable, certainly, but also separable.

The range of reactions includes disliking Christianity but enjoying the Santa+presents aspects; enjoying both sets of observances but thinking of them as separate; enjoying both sets of observances and thinking of them as intertwined; disliking both sets of observances and thinking of them as Christian; disliking the Santa observances because they aren't Christian; and enjoying Santas which appear as flies when seen from a great distance.

When people forget that their reaction to the holiday/s is not universally shared, friction arises. Examples abound.

Avram: I feel that calling the non-Christian portions of "Christmas" "Cashmas" is unfair to the people for whom Santamas really is about giving rather than spending. The ideal of Santamas is not getting lots of loot; it's about making the world a nicer place for everyone, even if you can only manage it for one frickin' day a year. "Make the world a nicer place for everyone" is an idea which is compatable with, as far as I can tell, every terrestrial religion and most secular philosophies.

Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2002, 10:45 AM:

Kevin: With that kind of thinking going around, is it any wonder that Economy is angered?

Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: August 03, 2002, 11:05 AM:

Patrick: I meant in a practical sense. My mistake was using the word 'shocked'. Horrified, angered, outraged, yes. To me 'shock' contains an element of surprise.

I picture your friend's reaction at this point as sort of "oh damn, this again." Weary, boredom-tinged anger and exasperation. Correct me if I'm wrong; I'm speculating. Of course it's outrageous! It's just not surprising.

Maybe I'm wrong about this, come to think of it. Maybe it would be better to take the position of NOT expecting these outrages; to try to assume that everyone will behave correctly, and to really be shocked when they don't. Cynicism leads only to depression, in my experience. Maybe the distinction I made (my Catholic coworker's reaction was total amazement that it could even be an issue) is real for me -- but my mind would be healthier if it weren't.

Hmm. I forget who is was who said "really listening to someone means being willing to be changed by what they have to say." I'm listening; I guess to me 'respect' means being willing to listen in this sense. I've come to realize that what you say is generally worth at least considering...even if I don't end up agreeing.

Oh, about the other Pagans: you're absolutely right, you do have a right to be put off by it. And while I have a right to it, it's probably rude, which means I probably shouldn't do it.

I'm angry about it, not because they're not like me, but at the subset of them who think *I* should be like *them.* "No, no, not blue light! You have to visualise white light!" Someone actually said that to me; I can't describe the many different aspects of my anger about this.

I'm sorry for going so far off topic. I'll try to stop now.

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2002, 01:59 AM:

Patrick writes that the reason he brought this subject up in the first place was to observe that children have rights.

Indeed they do, but there's still an interesting question of: rights to do what? I think we - or at least those of us who think the 9th Circuit wasn't crackers - can agree on where a teacher's use of religion crosses the line. But what about a student? Where does Laura G.'s right to describe her Christian religion to her fellow students (in the proper context of a holiday show-&-tell, remember) fade into an inappropriate proselytizing for that religion?

Kevin's observation on how the secular Christmas differs from the religious one has been made before, by C.S. Lewis among others. It's a reasonable and even useful point in certain types of discussion (e.g. "What is Christianity?"), but in a discussion of the limits of religion in a secular society, it's highly misleading. Whatever Christians may feel about the matter, to those of us who are not Christians, and who wish it were a little less pervasive in our culture*, do not find that the secularization of Christmas removes its religious taint.

*I recognize that Christianity will always be pervasive in our culture for historical reasons if nothing else. But we can still work to have its celebrations be a little less implied-mandatory. Not everybody celebrates Christmas any more than everybody celebrates Ramadan, and that should be recognized.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2002, 02:11 AM:

"But what about a student? Where does Laura G.'s right to describe her Christian religion to her fellow students (in the proper context of a holiday show-&-tell, remember) fade into an inappropriate proselytizing for that religion?"

Do please feel free to explain why a child is less entitled to advocate their religious views than an adult is.

"Kevin's observation on how the secular Christmas differs from the religious one has been made before, by C.S. Lewis among others. It's a reasonable and even useful point in certain types of discussion (e.g. "What is Christianity?"), but in a discussion of the limits of religion in a secular society, it's highly misleading. Whatever Christians may feel about the matter, to those of us who are not Christians, and who wish it were a little less pervasive in our culture*, do not find that the secularization of Christmas removes its religious taint."

I completely agree, and this nicely articulates the discomfort I've felt with Kevin's model.

"I recognize that Christianity will always be pervasive in our culture for historical reasons if nothing else. But we can still work to have its celebrations be a little less implied-mandatory."

This, on the other hand, I can't buy. The weasel-wording "implied mandatory" is simply a blank check for too much abuse. Either things are mandatory or they're not. We cannot legislate infinitely against finer and finer degrees of "peer pressure" without doing mortal damage to core values of tolerance and live-and-let-live.

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2002, 03:53 AM:

Cannot we agree that open religious proselytizing is an inappropriate use of public school classroom time, no matter who is offering it?

Perhaps not enough attention has been paid, in discussions like this one, to where the line is drawn in this matter. Your thoughts on this would be interesting. Or do you literally think there should be no limit? May little Scientologists raise their hands and preach the Gospel of Hubbard during any open classroom discussion?

If you completely agree with the main part of my comment on Kevin, then I don't see why you have a problem with my asterisk part. I only wrote the latter in case objections were raised to the former. Erase the latter, then, and let stand whatever you at first thought you agreed with when I wrote "[we] wish [Christianity] were a little less pervasive in our culture."

I certainly do not wish to argue for legislation against offensiveness: just for a cultural awareness that Christianity is not universal, and that presumptions of Christmas's secularity is No Excuse. By "implied mandatory" I merely meant that it's not literally mandatory, but it sure feels that way: theoretically possible to avoid, but in practice impossible.

Christopher Hatton ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2002, 11:43 AM:

I believe that no one, whatever their age, has the right to advocate their religion - or dietary habits, for that matter - to a captive audience - whatever their age.

That means that little Suzy can tell little Anandamayee all about Christmas on the playground. In the classroom is iffy. There's a huge gray area. And the distinction between description (which should be allowed) and proselytization (which should not, not in the classroom) is not one children can be reasonably expected to make. I'm not sure most teachers can, especially when their religion is the one being discussed.

I don't know the answer. But I think there's an issue.

Melissa Ann Singer ::: (view all by) ::: August 06, 2002, 11:46 AM:

WRT the Jewish lady PNH mentioned: Christopher, I have a feeling that she will get less resigned and more angry as time passes. No one asks a Christian who is taking Good Friday off if he or she is going to Mass. Why should it be different for a Jew or a Pagan or anyone else?

PNH: I agree that children have rights in the classroom, to talk about religion or whatever else they have been taught to believe in. Drawing the line is difficult however. I have a friend who is a Jehovah's Witness. Her daughter attends public school, but may not for much longer. Why? Because the mom has to yank her out of the classroom every time the mom gets notice of a religiously-related discussion. JWs are very hard-line when it comes to even hearing about other religions (especially in terms of their children--adults seem to be a little more relaxed about it). My friend would have been very upset to learn from her daughter that a show-and-tell of the sort decsribed in the original post had taken place in the child's public school classroom.

Some might argue that a JW child's rights would being infringed by _any_ discussion of religion at all in school. I personally find this to be an extreme position. During last winter, my 6-yo brought home a number of holiday-related art projects from kindergarten, including pictures for Kwanzaa, Hanukah, and Christmas. This was fine by me (and what especially tickled me was that my daughter made all her stars, even the ones in the Christmas pictures, 6-pointed). Since we live in NYC, there is a _lot_ of multi-cultural stuff in the classroom--observances for Chinese New Year, for instance. Most of it is led by the teachers, who mostly don't advocate anything in particular (though there are cases every few years of a teacher prosletyzing to her students).

I have no problem with a child talking about her faith in the classroom, or even a group of students discussing faith in school. Where I start to have difficulties is with "voluntary" prayer which becomes involuntary, or discussions which turn from explaining or exploring beliefs into propounding them. Since it is likely the teacher who would have to control such discussions, some may react by not having them rather than by attempting to thread their way through the minefields.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2002, 10:02 PM:

Simon Shoedecker asks:

"Cannot we agree that open religious proselytizing is an inappropriate use of public school classroom time, no matter who is offering it?"

No, I don't agree. I don't agree with drawing draconian bright lines like this over what may or may not be said in a public school. I think it's a charter for endless bad-faith nitpicking.

"Perhaps not enough attention has been paid, in discussions like this one, to where the line is drawn in this matter. Your thoughts on this would be interesting. Or do you literally think there should be no limit? May little Scientologists raise their hands and preach the Gospel of Hubbard during any open classroom discussion?"

I think that's a silly proposition, because no child in the public schools is extended an unlimited right to blather on any subject during class time.

Christopher Hatton says:

"And the distinction between description (which should be allowed) and proselytization (which should not, not in the classroom) is not one children can be reasonably expected to make. I'm not sure most teachers can, especially when their religion is the one being discussed."

I don't think you can convincingly make that distinction, either, and I would certainly object to any attempt at such a distinction being cast into law.

Melissa: With all due respect to your friend, I think the problem is hers, not the school's. It seems to me her dispute is with the basic terms of a multicultural society.

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2002, 11:41 PM:

This is evidently not the same Patrick Nielsen Hayden who opposes officially-mandated school prayer. There's a "draconian bright line" if there ever was one.

Note that the original post on this subject offered, as a rule, "Don't compel religious observances or practices from children in the public schools." Those in favor of officially-mandated school prayer claim that it's not compelled, that students may always opt out. To which it is usually replied that if it's officially mandated, it's effectively compelled. Is this not "a charter for endless bad-faith nitpicking"? Has not "endless bad-faith nitpicking" been the actual course of cases that have come in the wake of the school-prayer ban, including the very case under discussion?

The proposition that we may not draw lines through any fuzzy zones is a strange one. Why should the speed limit be 55? Why not 56, or 54? The argument presented here suggests that we should go back to permitting school prayer, because we can't find a firm line on where to stop it.

No child in the public schools is extended an unlimited right to blather on any subject during class time.

I did say open discussion, but never mind that. What subjects are relevant to a given discussion? How long a time is "unlimited"? On all such questions, a line must be drawn.

To throw up one's hands and say "That's a tough one: I don't know where the line is here" is one thing. But to cloak this in a nihilistic principle that one's previous arguments have rightfully ignored: that's another thing.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2002, 12:38 AM:

I'm completely baffled by this. My position is that I don't think even smart people, much less school administrators, can draw a sensible line that everyone will agree with between "talking about religion, something that exists in the real world" and "proselytising."

I don't see what's so objectionable about what I'm calling for: no compulsory religious observances, and no anxiety attacks over children talking about religion on their own steam. Yes, some of that "talking about" may take the form of "proselytising." Tough. You know something? Children are human beings. They have rights. You don't get to compromise the primary rights of autonomous human beings just because you've got your panties in a twist about "peer pressure." I got plenty of "peer pressure" when I was a kid, up to and including non-trivial physical injury. And yet there are nastier and more damaging tyrannies than "peer pressure."

If you want to make me out as a hypocrite for this ("This is evidently not the same Patrick Nielsen Hayden", etc.), well, go to town.

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2002, 03:18 AM:

You certainly are, if not a hypocrite, then at least seriously confused if you simultaneously oppose officially-mandated but non-mandatory school prayer and consider peer pressure to be entirely something that students will just have to live with. For societal pressure, peer and otherwise, is the entire argument against officially-mandated but non-mandatory school prayer. Officially-mandated and mandatory school prayer is not on the cards these days. For instance, to the objection to "under God" in the Pledge, the pro-pledgers' reply is, "just don't say those words." Do you consider that a sufficient reply?

In any case, peer pressure is not the reason I consider open religious proseletyzing to be inappropriate in the public school classroom. I also consider open canvassing for outside political candidates, and open advertising for commercial products, to be equally inappropriate, at least under most circumstances. Not necessarily totally shocking, not necessarily something that should be illegal, just inappropriate, and subject to teachers blowing the whistle when they consider it's out of hand.

If you can't tell the difference between informative presentation of a religion and open proseletyzing, others can. We can also tell the difference between news articles and editorials, and between tv documentaries and infomercials. And the existence of a grey or fuzzy zone does not negate this difference. There are grey and fuzzy zones around everything, and the job of drawing lines through these zones is, it sometimes seems, virtually the full-time occupation of the Supreme Court. Live with it.

Reginleif the Valkyrie ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2002, 11:35 PM:

Although it won't contribute to the debate at hand in any substantive way, I'd like to describe something that happened to me last year shortly before Easter. To give you a bit of background, I'm Jewish, but not at all observant. I live in Massachusetts, where there's a lot of ethnic diversity and a reasonable amount of religious diversity.

My then-boyfriend and I were in the checkout line of a supermarket. The cashier, a young woman who didn't appear to be very bright (judging by her rather inane conversation with the customer before us), asked me, "So what are you doing for Easter this year?"

"I don't celebrate Easter," I said.

"Why not?" she demanded.

In retrospect, I wish I had said something sarcastic like, "Um, do you realize that not everybody in the world is a Christian?" or something even snider, considering what happened next. What I chose to say was, "Because I'm not a Christian."

The girl's eyes widened and her mouth puckered, as if I had said, "Because I'm a Satanist," and she said not one more word to me. I said nothing myself and my boyfriend and I left.

We kind of snickered at her once we were out of earshot, because her ignorance was so blatant, but in retrospect I wish I'd called her manager. I think the lesson might have done her some good, as well as making me feel a little better.

If I had told her I was Jewish -- which I didn't, because it wasn't any of her damn business -- I wonder what response I'd have gotten. Probably something a bit milder. Funny how it's okay to say you're not Muslim or Hindu or Jewish, but if you say, "I'm not a Christian," quite a few Christians take that as a slur upon their faith.

I can only imagine what the encounter would have been like if it had been in, say, Georgia or Texas.

Melissa Singer ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2002, 11:18 AM:

Patrick: WRT my friend the JW: personally, I agree with you--it's her problem, not the school's. But I'm willing to bet that someone would see a potential lawsuit in this situation. I'm just amazed that they were even trying public school for this child, considering the various strictures placed on JWs. A party in their home where my dd and I were the only non-JWs present was very interesting . . . it's been a long time since I've run into the sort of quiet anti-Semitism on display there.

WRT to the Valkyrie's "I'm not a Christian": I've had the same thing happen more than once, most recently in Washington, DC this past April. My usua response is "Because I'm Jewish," which almost inevitably gets the response, "I'm sorry" from the other person. Now, I give people the benefit of the doubt and assume that they are apologizing for the initial assumption that I am Christian, but there are times when I have to wonder . . . .

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2002, 01:53 PM:

I ignored this thread for several days, so the last three messages are new to me. Perhaps I was right to stay away.

I repeat what I said earlier: "We cannot legislate infinitely against finer and finer degrees of 'peer pressure' without doing mortal damage to core values of tolerance and live-and-let-live." Yes, I'm against school prayer, and that includes supposedly "voluntary" prayer where it's obvious that everyone's expected to participate. Yes, I think that peer pressure is a real and often toxic thing. And yet, I think it's a big mistake to get bent out of shape if, in a context (like show-and-tell) where kids are supposed to have some discretion, some kids choose to talk about religion. If we do that, the message we convey isn't the message we think we're conveying. The message we convey is that the perfection of our power is more important than they are.

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2002, 06:36 PM:

PNH wrote:

I'm against school prayer, and that includes supposedly "voluntary" prayer where it's obvious that everyone's expected to participate. Yes, I think that peer pressure is a real and often toxic thing.

Earlier, he wrote:

You don't get to compromise the primary rights of autonomous human beings just because you've got your panties in a twist about "peer pressure." I got plenty of "peer pressure" when I was a kid, up to and including non-trivial physical injury.

These statements give very different impressions. No doubt, because PNH is an intelligent and subtle man (this is not sarcasm), his thoughts encompass both these positions without contradiction.

Yet, that does not come across to the reader who must go entirely on what is written.

PNH also writes,

We cannot legislate infinitely against finer and finer degrees of 'peer pressure' without doing mortal damage to core values of tolerance and live-and-let-live.

An admirable sentiment. Yet the legislation which actually exists, forbidding "voluntary" school prayer - legislation which PNH supports - is seen by many of its opponents as doing exactly that. (Have you heard Christians complaining that they're an oppressed minority in the U.S. today? Have you laughed hollowly at it? Yet, they believe this.)

So there comes a point where the desirability of abstaining from such legislation falls before the greater harm of not having it. And I guess we know where PNH thinks that point is in what the teacher says.

My position is merely that there would come such a point in what students say too. I can imagine a hellfire sermon by Junior Preacher that the teacher would consider inappropriate. I can think of other things students might say, having nothing to do with religion, that teachers might also consider inappropriate.

And we don't have to have a legislative act spelling out the details of that limitation for this line to exist.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2002, 03:36 PM:

Simon Shoedecker wrote:


PNH wrote:

I'm against school prayer, and that includes supposedly "voluntary" prayer where it's obvious that everyone's expected to participate. Yes, I think that peer pressure is a real and often toxic thing.

Earlier, he wrote:

You don't get to compromise the primary rights of autonomous human beings just because you've got your panties in a twist about "peer pressure." I got plenty of "peer pressure" when I was a kid, up to and including non-trivial physical injury.

These statements give very different impressions. No doubt, because PNH is an intelligent and subtle man (this is not sarcasm), his thoughts encompass both these positions without contradiction.

Thanks for the vote of confidence, he said wryly.

In fact I don't see such an all-fired contradiction. I'm against mandatory (overtly-mandatory or implicitly-mandatory) prayer in the public schools for a bunch of reasons, of which the "peer pressure" aspect is only one. And I don't think our worries about "peer pressure" are, by themselves, sufficient reason for abridging the rights of individuals, even of young individuals. For one thing, once you start down that kind of road, it's hard to see where to stop. That's what I meant when I cautioned against "legislat[ing] infinitely against finer and finer degrees." I have no problem with teachers exerting common-sense authority over plain old disruptive classroom behavior. (In fact, I don't see why that tool, by itself, isn't sufficient to most of the alarming scenarios bruited about in this thread--runaway religious proselytizing, Scientological monologues, political recruiting, et cetera.) But that's much more specific and self-limiting than a principle that says we're obliged to compensate, with rules, for any and all "peer pressure" we can discern.


[T]he legislation which actually exists, forbidding "voluntary" school prayer - legislation which PNH supports - is seen by many of its opponents as doing exactly that.

They're wrong. You know, sometimes very similar words are wrong in one context, and right in another. Generations of Southern Americans used "states' rights" as a cloak for arguing on behalf of slavery and, later, segregation. Does that mean that if I note that the Constitution reserves certain perogatives to the states, I'm actually arguing for white supremicism, or somehow responsible for those other people's bad faith? I think not.

My position is merely that there would come such a point in what students say too. I can imagine a hellfire sermon by Junior Preacher that the teacher would consider inappropriate. I can think of other things students might say, having nothing to do with religion, that teachers might also consider inappropriate.

And we don't have to have a legislative act spelling out the details of that limitation for this line to exist.

No disagreement there.

Simon Shoedecker ::: (view all by) ::: August 16, 2002, 04:37 PM:

Thanks for correcting my coding goof which left large tracts of this box erroneously italicized.

We're actually in agreement on the point I raised where I said: "The legislation which actually exists, forbidding "voluntary" school prayer - legislation which PNH supports - is seen by many of its opponents as doing exactly that."

Even as, as you observe, "states rights" is a legitimate point used as a cloak by white supremacists, so "We cannot legislate infinitely against finer and finer degrees of 'peer pressure'" is a legitimate point used as a cloak by certain Christians complaining that they're an oppressed minority. (They say that those who object to voluntary school prayer are being too sensitive.)

In other words, there's a limit to the "don't legislate against peer pressure" argument (just as there's a limit to the state's rights argument). Which is what I've been saying all along, and which you are also saying - though that was not clear to me earlier.

Kevin J. Maroney ::: (view all by) ::: August 17, 2002, 07:44 PM:

I don't know if this point is so obvious that it doesn't need making, or wrong-headed, or what, but:

It seems to me that many of the ultrafine-line restrictions on what teachers and schools can do come about because many teachers' and school administrators' "common sense" about matters such as classroom prayer and proselytizing are quite stupid.

My brother and I had the same algrbra teacher in tenth grade--he in 1976, me in 1980, more than a decade after the Murray decision. Between the time that Tim took her class and I took it, the school administrators finally forced her to take down the several Christian evangelical posters she had in the class. Tim entered UNC's computer science department in 1982 and I was hanging out there at the same time; by that point, department chair Fred "The Mythical Man-Month" Brooks was no longer holding manadatory prayer meetings, but Tim and I both knew other grad students who had had to go to them.

The algebra teacher was not a smart woman. Fred Brooks is a very smart man. Both of them had to be ordered to stop using their government positions to evangelize for Christianity, but not, I would think, because they lack common sense. This is why rules are created.

Unfortunately, most rules are a poor substitute for actual education; teaching a person why they should stop abusing their privilege creates a better world than simply ordering such people to stop.