My latest reading of Sheila Suess Kennedy’s What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing in the ACLU? justified the mission of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as well as discussed the Establishment Clause. I’ll focus on the mission of the ACLU in tomorrow’s post. In my post today, however, I’ll talk some about what Kennedy says about church and state issues.
Why is Kennedy opposed to government-sponsored prayer in public schools? In my latest reading of Kennedy’s book, I saw a variety of reasons: the First Amendment prescribes government neutrality on religion; public school children should not be a captive audience while public school authorities promote a religion; the role of instructing children in religion belongs to their families, not the state; etc.
In one case, I thought that Kennedy was not entirely clear about what is permitted in public schools and what is not. On page 52, for example, she quotes from an article that she wrote in which she states that “The [Supreme] Court did not say [in the 1992 decision Lee vs. Weisman] that graduation speakers cannot refer to God, or that seniors cannot sing a song that mentions God.” But later in the article she says that “When a school has the right to select its graduation speakers and approve their speeches, that is considered an endorsement of what they say”, and so “If the speaker offers a prayer, the school has legally endorsed that prayer”, which the public school cannot legally do. So can graduation speakers refer to God or not? If the public school is approving of a speech that mentions God, is that the public school sanctioning a religion, making the speech unconstitutional at the graduation ceremony? Or would that simply be the public school championing free speech and the right of a graduation speaker to voice her own opinion, not an endorsement of a particular religion?
Overall, Kennedy made good arguments in her chapters that discussed the Establishment Clause. She defended her separationist view of the Establishment Clause through an appeal to U.S. history, and she ably attacked the notion that problems increased in public schools after the 1962 Supreme Court decision banning government-sponsored prayer in public schools through a variety of arguments: for example, she noted that most public schools prior to 1962 did not even have government-sponsored school prayer, since a number of state Supreme Courts prohibited it in interpreting their own states’ constitutions. Kennedy also sought to debunk the idea that the ACLU is against students expressing their religious beliefs in public schools, for she said that the ACLU would actually defend a student who was punished for reading the Bible on the bus or for praying before lunch in the school cafeteria. (Kennedy said on page 56 that prayer before eating the cafeteria meatloaf is “a prudent precaution in most school cafeterias”!) She also denied that she opposes public schools teaching about religion as part of an academic subject. What she and the ACLU oppose is the government encouraging people to adopt a religious belief.
I have a question, though. In an interview here, Kennedy states: “Can Johnny get out of Biology because they’re teaching evolution? No, because they’re supposed to be teaching science, not religion. But, can Johnny get out of going to the Halloween party, yeah, because the Halloween party isn’t central to the school’s mission.” I realize that Kennedy would most likely disagree with the people on the religious right who hold that evolution is part of the sinister religion of secular humanism (as if secular humanism is a religion), for she’d regard evolution as science, pure and simple (as do I). But, in my opinion, teaching evolution in public schools and compelling students to be in the classroom while it is taught pose some of the same problems as government-sanctioned prayer in public schools. Students with conservative Christian backgrounds are being told that the origins narrative that they learned at home and at church is wrong; even if that is not said explicitly, teaching evolution as fact challenges the literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3 that many conservative Christians hold. How is that government neutrality regarding religion? And, if Kennedy agrees with parents who don’t want prayer in public schools because they (the parents) want the authority to teach their kids religion, why would that same consideration not apply to parents who don’t want their children hearing in public school classrooms that evolution is fact, or is a viable theory, because they themselves want to teach their children which origins narrative is best? I should note: Personally, I’m all for teaching about evolution in public schools. But I believe that it should be done with a degree of sensitivity towards people’s religious beliefs. Teachers can go ahead and be insensitive all they want, regarding conservative Christians who don’t believe in evolution as ignorant rubes, but that won’t accomplish anything constructive—-mostly it will invite backlash and resistance.
I’d like to close this post by talking about Barry Goldwater, the conservative Republican who ran for President in 1964. After talking about Republican Congressman (at the time) David MacIntosh’s support for community-sanctioned prayer in public schools, Kennedy asks on page 68, “What has happened to the Republican party between Goldwater and MacIntosh?” On the preceding page, Kennedy referred to a 1981 speech in which Goldwater defended the separation of church and state. Barry Goldwater looms large in Kennedy’s book, for Kennedy often quotes Goldwater’s classic, The Conscience of a Conservative. The implication that I get is that she regards herself as a Republican who is true to Goldwater conservatism, while she believes that Republicans adhering to or influenced by the religious right have strayed significantly from that. I do not entirely agree with her on this, however, for there was a sense in which cultural conservatism was a part of Goldwater’s candidacy, which was during a time of cultural upheaval. Goldwater even expressed opposition to the Supreme Court decision banning government-led prayer from public schools. See here for more information, or google “Goldwater AND school prayer”. Granted, Goldwater later in his career was an outspoken critic of the religious right, but he still championed a form of cultural conservatism in his 1964 campaign.
But, at the same time, I think that Goldwater’s principles of less government and respect for rights that transcend the will of the majority can be adopted to support the position on the separation of church and state that Kennedy espouses, even if Goldwater did not take those principles in that direction in 1964.