Faith Works 11-30-13
The limits of establishment
Over in Muskingum County, John Glenn High School and their school board made a hard but necessary decision. They took down a picture of Jesus hanging in the building.
They had looked at their options, and been given the legal advice that to keep the picture up would involve court battles which would cost the district something between $250,000 and $1,000,000 . . . and they would still have to take the picture down. Recent cases such as down in Jackson, Ohio showed how this would play out, and with that weight of fiscal responsibility hanging over them, the board did what they had to do. School districts can't risk that kind of money these days on much, let alone a guaranteed losing battle.
Why is this a losing battle? The Constitution does say, in the First Amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." If you're reading that, and thinking I've forgotten the part about "a wall of separation between church and state," that's because it isn't there. Not in the Constitution, not in the Bill of Rights, not in the US Code. It's in Jefferson's letters, a comment he made to some Baptists in 1802.
But let's just say that the intent of the Founders was to include in the national charter, as a binding advisory compendium, the collected correspondence of the Sage of Monticello. Maybe they did, and just forgot to add it as a footnote ("for details on the amendments, please consult T. Jefferson's letters he may write in the future").
This offending picture was purchased as a memorial to a long-serving teacher who died after 55 years of teaching, at her desk. Yes, at her desk. So given her manner of passing, it makes sense that to honor her service, friends gathered up an offering and purchased a painting that showed a person she respected deeply, and whose own life and death echoed the selfless sacrifice of Margaret Barnett.
Yet it was a picture of a religious figure, and so must be removed from school property (it will go to a local congregation Mrs. Barnett attended). "Wall of separation," you know. And having done so, I have to ask: where exactly does this stop, if the intention is to honor the legal force of Jefferson's epistles?
You don't have to make much of a reach, logically speaking, to wonder if the end point is a school curriculum made up entirely of mathematics and physical education. Yeah, the kids are gonna love that.
Plus, I'm reliably informed that as long as math tests continue, you will never be able to keep prayer entirely out of schools.
I do understand that the origin of the legal stream that brings us to the "Lemon test" (irony alert: that's really what it's called, and you can look it up on your own) is the fact that sectarian prayers, even and especially from the overwhelming majority religion in an area, can be divisive and hurtful and even oppressive for those students and their families who don't share those beliefs.
Or to put it even more plainly: I don't want teachers leading prayers. I love teachers, I'm the son and grandson and grandnephew of teachers and principals and superintendents, and I even married one, and I don't want teachers AS teachers leading prayer during the school day. And I want even less for teachers to lead a rote prayer written for them by a state legislature or even the local school board. It's the school districts job to provide math tests, and then the student and their family can learn together how best to pray and prepare for such trials.
Having said that, I don't get the angst over Mrs. Bennett's memorial, nor do I understand why it is legally impossible to tell the difference between an oppressive imposition of official religious establishment, or a particular expression of local values and personal memorials.
The law does pause to consider, on occasion, someone once known as "a reasonable person." How would a reasonable person respond to this, or that, as opposed to someone with an axe to grind or an interest to pursue. The "reasonable person" is a basis for judges to rule and for juries to deliberate.
Let's make sure we leave room in schools for students to learn how to become reasonable persons, regarding religion and art and pretty much anything else.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he likes to think of himself as a reasonable person. Tell him what you think is reasonable (or not) at email@example.com or @Knapsack on Twitter.