Church Violates State In Virginia
No matter how many times it has been made clear that the separation of church and state must be protected and maintained at all levels of government, it is painfully obvious that members of the Christian "right" will continue to make every effort to circumvent it or, if they can get away with it, eliminate the separation entirely. Over the years, various Christian groups have attempted to undermine it at one of our most critical levels; the American public school system.
In Staunton, Virginia, a group of parents who oppose a more recent campaign by Christian fundamentalists to provide religious instruction in the form of bible classes and activities during public school hours have been met with strong resistance to eliminate the program or even to modify it. According to a recent CNN.com news story last week, a sixty-year-old tradition of shuttling first-, second- and third-graders to churches during class time is going strong, and the supporters of the program have no intention of giving up their tradition without a battle. The proverbial line in the sand has already been drawn.
Although many towns have eliminated the classes, there are still twenty school divisions that have kept them, citing the wishes of the Christian parents for their children to receive religious instruction as their reason not to cut the program. The private group Weekly Religious Education has hired a lawyer and is also working with the Rutherford Institute, a center in Charlottesville that defends Christian rights. John Whitehead, president of the Institute, made a point of saying that the classes are consistent with the First Amendment and "this nation's religious heritage." However, Whitehead is either overlooking a glaring history lesson, or simply choosing to ignore it.
In her excellent book Freethinkers, A History of American Secularism, best-selling author Susan Jacoby outlined a case tried in the Supreme Court in 1948, McCollum v. Illinois. In McCollum, the high court struck down the Illinois law that allowed "release time" for religious instruction in its public schools. In Champaign, Illinois, children had been released from regular classes for religious education delivered by clergy of the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faiths. Jacoby pointedly notes that few rabbis participated in this program. Vashti McCollum, a secularist parent who strongly opposed the program, on the grounds that non-participating children were targeted for harassment by their religious classmates, actually filed the lawsuit. Paying a very high price for taking this action, her son was beaten up regularly, to the point where he had to be sent to a private school out of town. In addition, McCollum and her husband received some particularly vicious hate mail for many years following the decision.
When the case was finally tried, Justice Hugo Black, who wrote the majority opinion, stated unequivocally that the released-time program was a clear violation of the separation of church and state in the following declaration:
"Religious education so conducted on school time and property is patently woven into the working scheme of the school. The Champaign arrangement thus presents powerful elements of inherent pressure by the school system in the interests of religious sects. The fact that this power has not been used to discriminate is beside the point. Separation is a requirement to abstain from fusing functions of Government and of religious sects, not merely to treat them all equally."
In summary, Justice Black concluded:
"Separation means separation, not something less. Jefferson's metaphor in describing the relation between Church and State speaks of a ‘wall of separation,' not of a fine line easily overstepped....In no activity of the State is it more vital to keep out divisive forces than in its schools, to avoid confusing, not to say fusing, what the Constitution sought to keep strictly apart....It is the Court's duty to enforce this principle in its integrity."
It would appear that Weekly Religious Education, the private group offering the bible classes in Virginia, thought that taking the children to a nearby church instead of holding bible classes at the school would get around the restriction laid down by McCollum in 1948. Did they forget that Justice Black included "on school time" as well as on school property in his majority opinion, or did they just decide to ignore it? That's a question that is unlikely to be answered by either organization, which is hardly surprising.
Of course, Virginia isn't the only state in the country where proponents of the religious right seek to penetrate the Church and State wall via the public school systems. The Anti-Defamation League cites several instances in Alabama and Utah where Christian teachers have been rather aggressive in promoting their brand of faith at the very personal expense of Jewish and other minority-faith students who either refused or chose not to participate. In some cases, the non-participating students were humiliated not only by their classmates, but by the teacher as well. A rather strange exhibition of "Christian love," if you ask me.
No reasonable person would deny the right of an individual or group to follow a particular religious path, as this country still – thankfully – continues to uphold the Separation of Church and State. However, that path does have its limits. And when the rights of those who choose not to believe in a particular god or faith are threatened or trampled on by the "faithful," secularists and freethinkers everywhere can and will make it clear that such violations of individual rights in the name of religion will be neither welcomed or tolerated.