commentary (2005-38)

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A State Religion

‘...and in this schoolhouse some would build a church’

A State Religion

by Barry Henderson

Religion in the public schools will remain a tendentious issue, no matter how or whether the U.S. Supreme Court takes up the question of the symbolic phrase, “under God,” in the Pledge of Allegiance and its organized pupil recitations.

The forces of the religious right, unsatisfied with their own ability to conduct private schools, seem bent on introducing Christianity into the public schools in other ways. For example, there are church-sponsored organizations pulling children from regular classroom work into off-campus “religious instruction” sessions, and they are getting away with it under Tennessee law.

Next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Halls High School and Halls Middle School students are being offered “religious training” as part of a “Youth Crusade” at nearby Beaver Dam Baptist Church. The training is to be conducted in three sessions, averaging about an hour-and-a-half each day, if their parents give them permission.

It’s billed by its organizers on their website as the “Halls Middle School/Halls High School School Release Crusade 2005” next to the heading: “There’s more to Life Than a Black Hole.... I Have Been Released to Discover the Light.”

The same organization pulled a similar trick last year with very little fanfare. It got about 200 of the 2,000 eligible students and their parents to bite, evangelizing during school time at the church. This year, according to Knox County Law Director Mike Moyers, the crusade’s leaders were required to obtain notarized parental permission slips, and they have done so, grudgingly, even though it’s a feature of the statute that permits such religious proselytizing on school days.

“The statute requires us to allow it,” Moyers says. Even so, some members of the schools’ central office, including Supt. Charles Lindsey, have been concerned enough about the loss of school time to consult with the law director’s staff about its legality and propriety.

School Board Chairman Dan Murphy is not happy with it. “I find the group disruptive and irresponsible,” Murphy says, pointing out that there are only 180 school days in the year, with students expected to learn their lessons sufficiently on those days to pass uniform, standardized tests that have no religious foundation or significance.

That leaves 185 other days to participate in religious activities, not including after-school time on school days, but Murphy says that doesn’t seem to matter to the crusade organizers.

“We’re being used,” Murphy says. He’s right. The schools are being used as collection points. The kids are bused or driven or drive themselves to the schools, where the crusade sends scores of chaperones to pick them up and take them to church.

Although the crusade’s website makes it appear that the schools are backing the crusade, that’s not the case, Murphy says, adding,  “We’re not promoting them at all.”

He says Union County and its schools were actively promoting such an extra-curricular crusade several years ago when a family’s successful lawsuit ended that practice there. There are parent-opponents of the Halls crusade as well, Murphy says, but they don’t want to go public with their opposition for fear of having their children harassed, as was the case in Union County.

Bringing the crusade to Knox County is a challenge to the school system here to come up with a way of keeping its kids in school and keeping religious instruction in the homes and churches, where it belongs. It galls Murphy, who says he believes that “they’re spoiling for a fight.” Under existing state law—and because Murphy feels strongly that parents have the last say in what their children may do or not do, legally, and have the right to ask for and be granted excused absences for any reasonable reason—the organization’s Christian soldiers may not get a fight over their crusade.

It’s a failing of state law that does not provide for the strictest of separations between state schooling and church functions. The “Under God” clause wasan unwarranted and probably unconstitutional intrusion into schoolkids’ freedom-of-religion rights when it was jacked into the Pledge at the height of this nation’s Cold War, anti-Godless-communism mentality. But it seems innocuous, like the appearance of “In God We Trust” on coins, compared with sending kids off to church in the middle of the school day.

Left unchecked, such incursions into secular, government institutions based on religious zeal will continue, and they will be founded on the will of any religious majority that forms in this nation, unless legislatures, Congress and the courts put a stop to them. Otherwise, religious expressions should be spread around to reflect Americans’ respect for religious minorities, so that we wouldn’t mistakenly come to believe that Christianity had become an unconstitutional “establishment of religion” in this country.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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