In another heartening (if modest) victory for religious freedom, U.S. District Judge Margaret C. “Casey” Rodgers ruled this past Thursday that two Santa Rosa County, Florida School District employees did not willfully disobey the court's prior order forbidding district employees from “promoting, advancing, aiding, facilitating, endorsing, or causing religious prayers or devotionals during school sponsored events” at Pace High School in Milton, Florida. The order was issued in a lawsuit brought on behalf of two anonymous Pace students by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which claimed that principal Frank Lay and athletic director Robert Freeman were guilty of criminal contempt of the order when Lay asked Freeman to say a blessing before a luncheon in a newly built field house at the high school where about 30 boosters were invited to celebrate completion of the facility. Judge Rogers determined that the prayer appeared to be spontaneous and not a willful violation of her order, and therefore dismissed charges that could have in jail or hefty fines for both defendants. Lay had explained that his request of Freeman was one of longstanding habit between friends; that he “didn’t think about it”; and that he believed that the court's order referenced influencing students, which he didn't see in the room. Freeman had said that he simply asked the blessing when prompted, and that “It was a reflexive, traditional thing."
The judge's ruling comes about three weeks after school administrative employee Michelle Winkler was cleared of civil contempt charges for asking her non-school-employee husband to to read a prayer blessing that Mrs. Winkler had written for noninstructional employees of the school district being honored at an event off school grounds.
These developments are encouraging. Thank God (this blog isn't a public school, so I can say that), the Pace High School defendants were not fined or jailed for innocent expressions of faith not aimed in any way at students. Judge Casey seems to acknowledge that even the "separation of church and state" has limits, and that public school employees are people, whose religious faith and expression are legitimate personal interests which the government cannot expect or demand be totally abandoned as a condition of employment in the public school system.
But the fundamental problem remains. These people should never have had to endure these proceedings, or to worry about their livelihoods, careers, or freedom. The hammer wielded by the ACLU may have been held back for now in this case, but it hangs still over all public school districts and their personnel, ready to fall on anyone whom that organization decides might chink the "wall" that they believe exists, or should exist, between public education and religious faith.
The problem is uncertainty about where the proper line is between acceptable religious expression by school personnel and expression that becomes the functional equivalent of systematic religious indoctrination. The latter would not be appropriate for a variety of reasons, not least that a public school should be equally welcoming to all and serve the secular educational needs of all children in the district, so that parents can send their children there in confidence that their primary role in the children's instruction about religion will not be usurped or drowned out. Keeping public school districts free from the systematic promotion of one faith is also essential to preserving and fostering religious freedom for all students and school personnel.
I believe, however, that these goals can be met without ruthlessly purging the schools of every last vestige of religious thought and expression, which is the ACLU's apparent object. As Judge Casey seemed to recognize, doing so isn't realistically possible unless public schools are allowed to employ only atheists (and could they be trusted to scrupulously avoid saying anything to disparage religion?) or automatons without any of the personal convictions, doubts, dreams, or feelings from which religious thought and expression typically spring. Nor is it necessary, especially in a high school where students are of an age at which they generally have enough independence of mind and judgment to approach others' occasional religious expressions critically (albeit, one would hope, respectfully).
Perhaps most important, turning public schools into "faith-free zones" isn't desirable from an educational or social standpoint. As much as cynics and atheists deplore the fact, religious belief is an inescapable part of life and a driving force in the world around us, as well as an ineradicable part of our culture--even of modern culture. To stop the mouths of teachers and the ears of students against it would deny public school children the chance to learn not only what has inspired so much of the history, literature, art, and music to which they will be exposed, but also how properly to relate to adults and peers who have a religious faith or don't have one, how to treat them all respectfully as individuals and members of other cultures, and how to understand and cope with the forces that motivate others' behavior. If we're serious about promoting tolerance and diversity in our schools, we should be welcoming responsible religious expression there, not forbidding it. What will really disserve students is not exposure to religious faith, but the kind of rigid, sterile orthodoxy of non-religion that the ACLU wants to enforce.
Oppressive regimes like those in Saudi Arabia and Iran employ "religious police" to patrol the streets and even invade homes to root out any manifestation of unorthodox thought or behavior. Secular police in countries like North Korea and Communist China (whose dictator Mao Zedong famously decalred that "religion is poison") employ the same means against religious expression among their people. Should organizations like the ACLU be allowed to perform such a function in American public schools? Should they be allowed to dictate who can and can't be hired to work there, what they may and may not say and when or where, what the curriculum may and may not be, and how it must or must not be presented? Should they have veto power over what may be said in a valedictory speech? Should the ACLU be able to haul school personnel before judges to face criminal contempt charges whenever its agents, in their sole judgment, decide that a school employee's speech or actions have crossed a line that the ACLU itself has drawn?
It's welcome, but not enough, that Messrs. Lay and Freeman, and Mrs. Winkler, were acquitted of contempt charges in this particular case. Until public school districts start putting common sense and educational interests above "legal fees" in dealing with ACLU intimidation, and until courts have the wisdom and courage enough to articulate an appropriate medium between promoting and purging religion in the schools, their employees will remain subject to threats of prosecution for things as innocuous as bowing and praying silently during school hours, when it's obvious to a student or anyone else present that that is a prayer.