The Fourth R: Conflicts over Religion in America's Public Schools by Joan DelFattore, copyright 2004.Amazon Link
Brief Review: Religious and secular parents, children, administrators and politicians have disagreed about the correct/right role of religion in public education for over two hundred years. People who believe there should be religion in schools outnumber people who don't, but since they can't agree on the specific form of how religion should be there (Which text for prayers, for example), all their attempts to legislate or liticate religion end up in infighting amongst the "pro" religion camps.
This is a relatively short book (only 250 pages or so) that covers a lot of historical ground (it starts back in the early 1800s). It is excessively legal, but the author is very clear in the introduction that this is her goal: to discuss the legislation and legal cases that have led us to today's position on religion in school (OK if led by students alone, not OK if anyone else - parents, administrators, outside clergy, etc - leads the activity).
Let me be clear: I'm of the opinion that religion in any form as a part of governmental activity is dangerous. My reasoning is simple: I wouldn't want anyone judging my religious beliefs (which is what the government would be doing, if they allow establishment of a single religion), so whether I'm part of the majority or not, religion is best left to personal choice. My goal in reading this book was to learn the state of the present debate on religion in school, and see how we had got there. This book does those things very well.
Two hundred years ago the debate over religion in school was not one of is-there-or-isn't-there but (since everybody felt it should be there) was one of what-kind-should-it-be. Lawsuits (much like today) were the method of choice for most, and the original dissenters were Catholic schools arguing that the religion being taught was not what the Catholic students were learning at home. The courts back then invoked the constitution to rule that government could not promote one sect over another (Protestant over Catholic), and Congress and the local schools spent most of the next hundred or so years arguing about the correct phrases, texts and passages in order to promote a broad form of Christianity that was acceptable to everyone (any other religions were ignored).
As you might imagine, the other religions began to get in on the act, and the Courts were forced (by their own precedents) to argue that any form of religion that was promoted was the government establishing a religion, and that the schools cannot do that. The compromise position was that the government could not keep religion out of school, if the children themselves brought it in (that would violate their freedom of speech/religion). So any act that had religious content that had official sanction (graduation speeches, reading a prayer over the loudspeaker, etc.) even if performed by students was illegal, but that any action by students alone (meeting after school, prayers before football games) was OK. Which is more or less where we are now.
The book spends the first third describing the nineteenth century litigation, another third covering the landmark court cases in the 1950s and 1960s that removed religion from the classroom, and the last third talking about the failures of Congress in the 1970s and 1980s to put together legislation that would put religion back in school. As noted, the vast majority of Congress would vote for a "pro-religion" bill (whether it be prayer, teaching it, or something else is pretty much irrelevant, though most of the litigation and legislation has focused on prayer), but every time someone really tries to muscle a bill through it collapses because all the different groups and legislators cannot agree on the specific language that would work. Hence, we reach the somewhat ugly compromise position we are in (and, argues DelFattore, likely to be in for a while).
I'm not a huge fan of this subject, but this is an interesting spoke on a larger wheel. The real debate is about the nature of how much power a majority coalition should have in a democracy. The "pro-religion" people, throughout the centuries, have argued that Christianity is overwhelmingly acceptable to the vast majority of people (clearly true in the last century, but not so clearly true today, but I digress), and that if the majority wants to legislate something then just because they are the majority then they can - that, argues the majority, is what a democracy is all about. So if the majority wants prayer in school, the death penalty, a lack of science in policy decisions (see this, or to deny gays the right to marry, then they can, because they are the majority and that's what democracy is about. (Reading DelFattore's descriptions of the "pro-religion" rallies, legal papers and interviews makes this position crystal clear.)
This isn't, for me, what democracy is about. Key to democracy is to protect the rights of minorities from the tyranny of the majority. Rarely does the majority need protection, or to codify what they already mostly do. Often, however, does the minority need protection in order to allow those to carve out their own lives, based on their own personal choices - that's the key. DelFattore's book explores one part - religion in schools - of the larger debate, but it is an interesting exploration no matter which side of the religion or democracy debate you are on. Highly recommended.Posted by baltar at August 16, 2004 01:26 PM | TrackBack | Posted to Books