fidesquaerens (marta_bee) wrote,

the Freedom to Pray, the Freedom Not to Learn

Yesterday Missouri approved a state constitutional amendment as part of their primary election. News commentators and bloggers have been called the Right to Pray amendment. Here's the text Missourians actually saw on the ballot:

Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to ensure:
  1. That the right of Missouri citizens to express their religious beliefs shall not be infringed;
  2. That school children have the right to pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools; and
  3. That all public schools shall display the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.

Put that way, it basically looks like Missouri is re-affirming the U.S. Constitution's protections for religious (or areligious) freedom. A lot of people opposing it point to the redundancy, the cost of defending it in court - some even called it a jobs bill for lawyers. If I was voting in Missouri's primaries for the first time, I'd have voted against it because I think it implies religious people's liberties are under attack in Missouri, and because in a state as overwhelmingly Christian as Missouri is (around 80%, last I heard), I'd be nervous about ostracizing minorities. Particularly in the wake of a hate crime against a minority religion's house of worship in nearby Madison, WI, just a few days ago.

But even with that, the ballot text strikes me as something that would be very hard to vote against. You might as well add on number four, forbidding the torture of small kittens just for the heck of it.

The actual amendment text isn't nearly as vanilla. The usual warnings that I'm not a lawyer apply, of course, but here's how I read it. The usual (federal) constitutional prohibition against establishing one religion is given "to secure a citizen's right to acknowledge Almighty God according to the dictates of his or her own conscience," which definitely shows a preference to theism and I argue to Christianity (or at least Judaism + Christianity) over other religions that name God differently. There's a whole long list of similar statements; you have an idea most Americans familiar with, but they're twisted just enough that their original meaning seems warped.

Others more familiar with legal principles in general and this law in particular can analyze all of that. But it also deals with religious rights in a public school setting. Here's the whole section of the law that deals with education:

Shall the Missouri Constitution be amended to ensure: [...] that students may express their beliefs about religion in written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their work; that no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs; that the state shall ensure public school students their rights to free exercise of religious expression without interference, as long as such prayer or other expression is private and voluntary, whether individually or corporately, and in a manner that is not disruptive and as long as such prayers or expressions abide within the same parameters placed upon any other free speech under similar circumstances.

Personally, even the second part scares me. We're in a bit of an epidemic with gay high school kids killing themselves; the last thing we need is to enshrine it in the constitution that their religious classmates have a right to bully them under the shroud of religion. Obviously those students already have certain rights to religious free expression, but making such a big, political deal could embolden students and make principals more timid about enforcing just policies until everyone decides just what the law means. I also think that in school, making anyone feel like an outsider fights against setting up a safe, productive learning environment. In a state with an overwhelming majority of Christians, imagine how Jews and Muslims and atheists and other non-Christian a/religious groups would feel trying to eat lunch with a group of Christians praying ostentatiously over in the corner. Focusing on the things that divide us like that is, well, divisive.

But that's not even my real concern. I included those clauses mainly to be thorough. What really concerns me are the bits I've put in bold. If I'm reading this right - and any lawyers reading this, please feel free to correct me! - it looks like if your religion is against some belief then you can be excused from learning about it. That's always been the case with sex-ed classes here (parents could always opt out, and in some cases had to actually opt in), and the kid could go do homework in the library for the hour. I was never crazy about this, frankly. But in my school, it was also on the assumption that the kid would be educated somewhere else - either by parents or by a church youth group. The point was that in theory the kids weren't getting excused from the subject, just having it presented in a different context. That didn't work so well in practice, of course. But this bill isn't even going that far. As I'm reading it, if you don't believe evolution is true, you no longer have to learn what it is; you just have to know that your religion rejects it.  

Thing is, there's a difference between knowing what something is and deciding whether you believe it's true. Let me give you an example from my own work. I teach at a Jesuit university, but I teach the course more or less like I would at a state school. In the ethics class I just finished, I had at least two options on our papers that might have run afoul of this law. In the first paper some students explained (among other things) the Prisoner's Dilemma and applied it to the problem of climate change, specifically the problem of how to motivate countries to actually get involved rather than wait on other people to fix the mess. In the second paper one of the options was to develop + evaluate an Aristotelian position on abortion. In both cases these were only one option of two or three different topics, but that's because of the way I ordered the class this time. (I did Plato/Rand and then Mill, then backtracked through Kant to Aristotle, rather than doing Aristotle directly after Plato.) I could easily see a paper set where two of the three, maybe even all of the options involved the kind of thing a conservative Christian might object to. 

In my philosophy classes, I'm less concerned with a student's conclusion than how s/he gets there. Take the abortion paper. This is actually a compare/contrast paper, and many of my students use as their second source someone arguing for the Catholic/Christian position that humanity begins at conception, usually using John Noonan's essay. So the students have to first present Aristotle's function argument and then someone else (like Noonan) arguing for a different position, and then give a philosophical defense of the position they think is correct. At the beginning of the course I make quite clear what I mean by that: it's the kind of thing that, once you understand the argument, it would be irrational not to accept it. As committed as I am personally to my religion, if a student gave me a paper saying "The Bible says abortion is always murder so Aristotle must be wrong," I'd call them in for a conference and a rewrite. Not because I disagree with the conclusion (I do, incidentally, both theologically and philosophically) but because they relied on authority rather than argument. They're simply not doing philosophy.

A student could of course choose a different topic, or s/he could choose to make a philosophical defense of Noonan's position. (There are some such arguments available, at least at the student's level.) But if I was teaching this topic in Missouri next fall, I'd think twice about assigning the essay. And I'd definitely think twice about forcing a student to rewrite an essay that relied on a religious text's authority, even though by not having that conversation I'd be remiss in my professional obligations. It's one thing to insist every student agree that Aristotle was right in an exam or paper situation, but I've never done that and I've never met another philosophy instructor who did. Sure, we'll insist that you give an adequate explanation, that you understand it. Just as I would expect any student in my class to be able to explain why Hume rejects the Design Argument for God - even if they were a theist who thought this particular argument worked. Evaluation is good and fine, but understanding must come first.

Ditto for evolution. Ditto for global warming. Ditto for any economic model other than laissez capitalism. You can't explain what's wrong if you can't explain what it is. And frankly, I find it a shocking misuse of taxpayer money to educate someone and allow them to check out on being exposed to the major scientific (and social scientific, and philosophical, and ...) theories that shape our world. This bill is just all around not cool.

As an aside, I apologize in advance to the proud citizens of Missouri who voted against this bill, and former Missourians who would have done the same. I remember after North Carolina's vote on Amendment One, how hard it was to be the butt of every joke I heard online. It stunk, and if the same things happen to your state now, I know it can be a hard and lonely stretch of time until the next outrage comes along. Just remember that the internet has a short attention span. Just keep calm and carry on. ;-)        
Tags: politics, religion, teacherly

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