Friday, September 21, 2007

Is Rainwater All Wet?

Today I had a personal email from PhillyChief, asking me to write my own post on the same subject as one he’d just published. It’s really nifty, I think, that some of us atheists communicate with one another privately to ask for advice, comments, and criticism, and to urge further discussion on issues that need to be hashed out in the Atheosphere. We are a community, and I count Philly among my friends.

The trouble in this instance, though, is: I disagree with him. Go read Philly’s post, so I don’t have to restate the whole situation. You might also want to take a look at John P.’s post, while you’re at it.

* * *

Welcome back. I’m gonna digress for a minute to quote the U.S. Constitution once more, because I don’t think it can ever be quoted enough. The First Amendment begins:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech ...
The first few words of the Amendment are often referred to as the Establishment Clause. The second prohibition against governmental interference is known as the Free Exercise Clause. And, of course, the rest of the part I quoted is the Free Speech Clause. For fans of the Marx Brothers, I’d like to point out that there is no Sanity Clause.

Neither the Freedom From Religion Foundation nor schools Superintendent Art Rainwater are claiming that the Free Exercise Clause is at issue. The FFRF is claiming that distribution of the fliers violates the Establishment Clause. Rainwater’s claim is that distribution of the fliers upholds the Free Speech Clause. Hey, we’ve got ourselves a potential Constitutional conflict, don't we? No governmental institution (among which, clearly, are public schools) may work toward establishing a religion, nor may it abridge the right to free speech. I’ve already addressed this dilemma in my post Bongs Hits for Establishment.

So the School Board, in the alleged goal of creating “a limited public forum,” decides that any “appropriate” flier (apparently purely commercial advertisements are disallowed) may be sent home with the kids for the parents to read. The flier must include a printed disclaimer stating that the activity is not sponsored, approved, or endorsed by the school.

Now, we’ve seen the tactic of sending home Christian messages before. The godpushers who want to enslave young minds are delighted to be able to do so under the auspices, if not the technical support, of public education. Their agenda is obvious.

BUT ... and it’s a big but (no offense to anyone) ... the School Board’s policy, as stated, sounds commendable. What better way to teach children that speech is free in this country than to let them be inundated with fliers of all sorts? Yes, we should teach them, speech is free, but not all speech should be accepted as true or valuable. Each member of the audience must decide for him- or herself whether the message is gold or garbage. That’s a very cool lesson. And remember: parents can simply toss out any flier they find offensive. Or, better still, they can use it as a springboard for a family discussion.

If we really believe in free speech, we should support it everywhere. Free speech may be offensive to some, but that’s the way it is with freedom: sometimes it's messy. Either you’re for free speech or against it; there’s no picking and choosing. And it should extend to the classroom, too. As Justice Fortas wrote in a different context:
It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate.
So there in Madison we have a potential Constitutional problem: Do the fliers violate the Establishment Clause or are they merely an exercise of Free Speech? I’d be inclined to go with free speech for the time being, and leave the school board alone. As unlikely as it seems to those of us who have seen the fundies’ dishonesty time and time again, perhaps this situtation is different.

There’s an easy way to decide. The offending flier said:
Plant the Seeds of Faith in Jesus in Your Child at Our Sunday School ...Don't Neglect the 3 R's: Religion, Relationships and Rejoicing.
An atheist group should come up with a similar flier that says (for example):
Plant the Seeds of Reason in Your Child at Our Sunday Secular Meeting ... Don’t Neglect the 3 R’s: Reality, Rationality and Relish.
(I also like Revitalization, Release, or Risibility as substitutes for that last R. Even repeating Relationships or Rejoicing would be fine. Just don't make it Republicanism.)

If that flier flies, we atheists should have no complaint. If it’s banned for any reason, we’ve got an Establishment and a Free Speech case.

So let’s be reasonable, as we atheists always claim to be. It’s premature to be flooding the school board with letters and emails. There’s a small chance that they really do care about promoting free speech. Wouldn’t that be fantastic, eh?


PhillyChief said...

apparently purely commercial advertisements are disallowed
Oh contraire mon frair, I do remember them saying one of the flyers sent home was for a local martial arts school. I've yet to see a non-profit martial arts school.

What better way to teach children that speech is free in this country than to let them be inundated with fliers of all sorts? Yes, we should teach them, speech is free, but not all speech should be accepted as true or valuable. Each member of the audience must decide for him- or herself whether the message is gold or garbage. That’s a very cool lesson.
We're talking about elementary school, as in roughly 5-10 year olds. Do you remember when you were that age? Know any kids around that age? You think they're going to learn any great lesson like you're describing out of this shit?

I really hate the idea of testing the board's "appropriate" guideline by submitting atheist flyers for distribution. The reason is if they get rejected, yes there'd be grounds for legal action but then what would be the news headline? It'd be some bullshit about atheists wish to distribute flyers to children, atheists attack school, atheists attack church material, etc. Come on, you know that's how it'd play in the media and it'll just perpetuate that notion of "those damn atheists". At best you'd have an atheism vs theism battle, which still is miles off the mark of the point.

The compromise I suggested, which I still don't like, is to send everything home in a sealed envelope for the parents. At least then the kids are just unknowing mules.

The Exterminator said...


I don't see why the kids need to be unknowing mules. They probably hear tons of information about how great churches are from their friends, the children of Jesus-jumpers; the playground is a great place for religious propaganda. Kids get exposed to all kinds of crap every single day. The flier is one instance where the parents actually get an opportunity to know what nonsense their children are being fed.

You said:'ll just perpetuate that notion of "those damn atheists". At best you'd have an atheism vs theism battle, which still is miles off the mark of the point.

I don't think it's off the point. I think it's exactly the point. Free speech keeps the debate going without officially squelching either side. Our job as nonbelievers is to show that we're not "those damn atheists."

Look, I'd much rather have that dialogue out in the open, than to quash it entirely under the guise of protecting our freedoms. When we hush up all references to religion that kids might hear, we tape our own mouths closed, too. And Christianity, being the majority belief system in our country, wins by our silence. Parents who are indoctrinating their kids don't need a fucking flier to do it. So banning the flier doesn't prevent brainwashing; it only muffles discussion.

If you've been reading my blog for long, you'll know I insist that atheists and secularists should object loudly and vociferously when religion is shoveled at students as part of their schoolwork; that really does violate the Establishment Clause. But I don't see how distributing a flier -- nonsponsored, nonapproved, and nonendorsed by the school system, and allegedly bundled in with other fliers -- does that, unless opposing fliers are forbidden.

By the way: Here's the reference to the martial arts school in the article you linked to (the boldface is mine): Many of the materials from nonprofit organizations, Rainwater said, advertise activities such as martial arts lessons or sports camps that many parents find useful.

John - Evolutionary Middleman said...

Phillychief makes a strong rebuttal, but this line from the Exterminator has my support:

"If that flier flies, we atheists should have no complaint."

Philly, you might be right - they may well reject the atheist flier and then it all plays out with the media pretty much like you said. This is something we have had to deal with for many years, and will continue to. But there will be a lot of media attention and there will be some very articulate folks bringing in the other side of the argument. This is how things get done in a free society.

And - maybe they simply accept the flier and send it home like everything else.

As far as your concern about the corruption of young minds - I have to say that I think kids are stronger and smarter than we give them credit for, and I'm MUCH more concerned with them being blindly indoctrinated than I am to them receiving an overload of info, some of which may be garbage.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

This may be a good place to start teaching the kids about the 1st Amendment. However, I don't think I had even the foggiest idea what the 1st Amendment was, what it Amended, and why it was important, until I reached High School. Before that, it was just a lot of "parent talk".

I have a problem with adults using children as little incubators of ideas. Insert nonsense into kids when they are young, and you'll never get it out of them when they are older, at least from most of them. That's the entire raison d'etre of religion. Without child indoctrination, religion would die out.

This is one of the reasons why creationists get so worked up about teaching ID in high schools, because they know they are dealing with formative, yet not completely developed, brains. Try teaching it in college, and post graduate schools, where courses are elected, not mandated. They know they'd be laughed out of every institution of higher learning except those they a in now - Christian colleges.

So while the 1st Amendment is a laudable ideal to protect, I think it goes right over the heads of elementary students. While we get sidetracked over debates of constitutional law, another hundred million Christians are being molded into shape.

They are the ones who will vote to repeal it someday.

I don't know how we can prevent the flyers, except by trying to convince the adults that they are not a good idea. Hence my email.

My 2 cents.

The Exterminator said...

SI, you said: However, I don't think I had even the foggiest idea what the 1st Amendment was, what it Amended, and why it was important, until I reached High School. Before that, it was just a lot of "parent talk".

That goes for me, too. But had I been taught what free speech is, I probably would have understood it; I already "believed" in it, as evidenced by my big fresh mouth.

I do remember my 6th grade teacher telling us about the John Peter Zenger case, as an example of freedom of the press. The details were simplified, but I learned what a free press meant -- and actually started appreciating how cool newspapers were.

While we get sidetracked over debates of constitutional law, another hundred million Christians are being molded into shape.

Yeah, but, as I said in my response to Philly, and I'll quote myself here, "Parents who are indoctrinating their kids don't need a fucking flier to do it."

The flier is irrelevant if the kids are already being fed god-slop. But parents who do object to the flier have an excellent opportunity to tell their kids what all the fuss is about.

I think it's time in this country that we stopped working so hard to shelter children from intellectual unpleasantness. If nonbelieving parents fear that a stupid flier for a Sunday school is going to turn their kids into raving fundies, those parents really aren't talking enough about their values.

See, people opposed to the theocrats have values, too!

PhillyChief said...

Look, I'm one of those people who objects to the under god bit in the Pledge of Allegiance but I would not raise a stink at my kid's elementary school, make him refuse to say it, or any of that shit. Despite what I think is right, I wouldn't use my kid as a political pawn. Also, I don't think an elementary age kid has the fortitude to stand alone and object. Oh we can get all high and mighty about the grand message and teaching the kid early and blah blah but the that's just a lot for a little kid. I see these flyers being the same way and why I voiced my concern to the parental opt out option since it singles out the kids for what? For their parent's political views. This is why I think if they're going to send this stuff home, then send it in sealed envelopes.

The issue isn't just the message, but that it comes from school, giving it perceived authority. Another reason why I think you either don't have it or send it sealed. When I think elementary school, I'm thinking ages 5-10. They're too young to know what's what. I mean, that's why the church wants them in the first place, right?

I stand corrected on the martial arts classes. ;)

Reading your initial response exterminator, I agree with what you say about having an open dialogue but the kids are caught in the crossfire of the controversy and I don't like that. I think a parent should be able to limit the content or at least review content first before having their kids exposed to it.

The Exterminator said...


Well, basically I agree with you about not using kids as political pawns. And I also agree with you that the message coming from school gives it a perceived authority. But is it the kids who perceive the authority, or the parents? If the fliers are being distributed as random bundled notices, no authority figure at school is giving them an imprimatur. (If that happened, we'd have a heavy-duty Establishment case.) Assuming that neither the teachers, nor the principals, nor the office staff ever refer to the fliers in any way, who imbues those fliers with authority? I doubt that it's the kids.

The fliers are not analogous to the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. The "under God" phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance is an official, governmental recognition of religion, and, as such, at least in my opinion, completely unconstitutional. As well as being offensive and stupid.

But what's the danger of the fliers? A Christian kid takes the flier home and says, "I want to go to this Sunday school," and the parents either say, "OK, you can try it," or "No, that's not our church; we have our own Sunday school." A non-Christian kids takes the flier home and says, "I want to go to this Sunday school," and the parents say, "we don't go to church because we don't believe in that religion." That's what my parents told me when I was a child and I wanted to celebrate Christmas. "We don't celebrate Christmas because we don't believe in that religion."

Yeah, if I had small children in public school I'd be pissed as hell if they came home with ads for a church, a temple, a mosque, or -- for that matter -- a martial arts school. But I'm also pissed as hell when Jehovah's Witnesses knock on my door, or when I happen to run across some idiot preacher on TV, or when churches advertise in my local newspaper, or when a huge cross looms up on the side of a road as I drive by.

That's what free speech sometimes does. It gets people pissed off.

PhillyChief said...

The perceived authority issue is that the kids get it from school. I don't think a child between 5-10 can tell that a flyer they get from school is not from the school and/or endorsed by the school. Parents can of course.

I brought up the Pledge because of the repercussions for the child whose parents would tell them not to recite it because of their objection to it. When I was in 5th grade there was a kid who was a jehova witness and he didn't stand and recite it. He got shit for that. I've found out now that the opt out thing is all encompassing, meaning the kid gets no flyers, including important school related ones. Maybe not as big a deal as not standing and reciting the pledge with the others, but still the kid isn't getting a bunch of flyers to carry home like everyone else. There's no way to tell what that setting apart may lead to. Kids are cruel. This is why I brought up the Pledge, to make an analogy of what affect a parent's view and subsequent decision can make.

The sealed envelope is a compromise that I think makes no one completely happy, which is a usual sign that it's a decent compromise. ;)

If a parent wants to discuss an issue in a flyer with their kid, great. Hopefully they would. What would be nice is being able to pick the time and place rather than having to answer on the spot when they come home asking about god and Sunday school that they read about in their flyer.

All of your comments like this is the same as churchies at the door or channels on tv are a tad off because you can control a kid's access to such things. They have vchips, tv and movie ratings, ages for games, internet filters and hopefully you teach your child not to open the door to strangers. Now personally I don't believe in blocking out the outside world, but I do understand the desire to either restrict certain content until the parents can review it or they feel ready to expose their kid to it. Even so, it's not my place to interfere in a parent's efforts to do so.

I'm not so old that I don't remember how dumb school officials were when I was a kid, so I doubt they can properly assess what's "appropriate" nor restrain their personal opinions. I think the least the school could do is send the flyers home sealed. The opt out, all or nothing choice sucks.

PhillyChief said...

It's been brought to my attention that back in the first year that they implemented this plan, the FFRF was permitted to send home a flyer. The flyer was an invite to a party to learn "You can be good without God"

I still adhere to my sealing the flyers compromise. I have to respect the fact that theist parents would want to withhold this from their kids, at least until they could discuss it with them first.

The Exterminator said...


I'd go with your excellent sealed-envelope compromise, as long as all batches of fliers sent home via the kids are similarly sealed. I don't think sealing an envelope restricts free speech at all.

By the way, what happened when the FFRF fliers went home with the kids? Was there an uproar in the community or not? If not, the fliers are a non-issue. If there was, what did the school district do about it?

PhillyChief said...

That I don't know. Perhaps we should write the FFRF?

I wrote back asking the member who wrote me last if they ever considered the sealing of flyers. No reply yet.

vjack said...

You've just been tagged with an evolution meme blog-tag: Enjoy!

vjack said...

Well said. My initial reaction is that it is a bit of a stretch to apply Constitutional assurances of free speech to public schools sending material home with young children. I am also suspicious that that parents would be enraged at an atheist literature finding its way home and would raise such a fuss that the school would have little choice but to cave.

This is a sticky issue. I can see both sides, and I'm honestly not sure of the ideal resolution.

The Exterminator said...

Yeah, vjack, I have the same feeling about that Constitutional stretch. But it might be nice to see it pulled in the freedom direction for a change.

As far as the atheist fliers go: If they do cause a fuss and the school does cave, that will be the end of all fliers. We win. If they don't cause a fuss, or if the school doesn't cave, it's a victory for free speech. We win, again.

I love a sure-thing bet.