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.
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?