Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Galloway v. Greece: a Lemon Test no-brainer

August 7, 2013

Following a relatvely mixed ruling from the Second Circuit on the question, the Supreme Court decided a few months ago to take up the issue of whether or not municipal or state legislatures should be able to open their legislative sessions with sectarian prayer. The case, Galloway v. City of Greece, is based on a fact pattern familiar to every level of American government, from the Senate to local town councils: the legislative body in question opens its sessions with a prayer, almost universally led by Christian clergy, using ambiguous or non-existent criteria for selecting the clergyman or vetting the content of his (the clergy invited to perform the incantations are almost universally male) prayers, during hours that the legislature in question is supposed to be doing the business the taxpayers pay them for.

According to the briefs filed by the respondents, on facts that the Second Circuit noted were basically uncontested, the town of Greece, New York, fits the familiar pattern to a T:

The Town Board in Greece, New York, opens its monthly meetings with clergy-led prayer. With the exception of a four-meeting hiatus around the time of the filing of this lawsuit in 2008, the Town has relied exclusively on Christian clergy, who have persistently delivered overtly Christian prayers. Many of the prayer-givers have elaborated on Christian tenets and celebrated the birth and resurrection of Jesus Christ; one asked attendees to recite the Lord’s Prayer in unison; and another criticized objectors to the prayer practice as an “ignorant” “minority.”

Clergy request that attendees join in the prayers. Town Board members participate by bowing their heads, standing, responding “Amen,” or making the sign of the cross. Members of the audience do the same. At the conclusion of the prayer, the Town’s Supervisor typically thanks the prayer-giver for serving as the Town’s “chaplain of the month,” though he did not bestow this title on the few non-Christians who delivered the prayer in 2008. Many members of the audience are required to attend the meetings; children also routinely attend to fulfill a high-school civics requirement.

In short, the question before the Supreme Court is whether or not it is appropriate for the state to invite religious proselytizers of an almost exclusively Christian background to pray, and compel government officials and non-governmental attendees ranging from children in mandatory high school classes to public onlookers, to join in their proselytizing, on government time, using government funds, in government facilities, on behalf of the taxpayers, without violating a Constitution that expressly forbids the government from establishing a state religion.

This should be a brainer-free case. The flagship judicial test for whether or not the government has violated the First Amendment’s proscription against the establishment of state religion (hence the “Establishment Clause“) is the Lemon Test. Despite all attempts by the conservative wing of the Supreme Court to curtail the use of the Lemon Test, it remains the most common, and most accessible, test for whether or not an action by the state unconstitutionally establishes a state religion or otherwise infringes on the religious liberties of American citizens.

The relative paucity of brainers in this case is exemplified in some of the amici (“friend-of-the-court” briefs, basically, legal briefs written by parties that aren’t part of the lawsuit but that have some other interest, such as a moral conviction or political affiliation, related to the case) that have been filed for Greece by such notable champions of the separation of church and state as the Southern Baptist Convention (my religious alma mater) and the Republican-controlled Congress. The Southern Baptist Convention points out that denying the power of legislatures to open with sectarian prayer raises the ghastly specter of a Unitarian takeover of America. And as for the Republicans’ brief, well, lets just say that its “table of authorities” includes one actual statute, seven actual cases (more than half of which were decided in favor of the secular side of the case), and ten Bible verses.

Now, on the Lemon Test, there isn’t much to argue about. The Test comes in three prongs; to wit:

1. The challenged state action must advance a valid secular governmental interest
No prayer advances any valid secular governmental interest. The government’s interests are diverse and many, but none of them seems ever to have been advanced or protected by inviting sectarian interests, almost entirely Christian ones, to spend legislatures’ time praying. Now, either prayer is capable of causing real change in the world, or it isn’t. If it is, then whatever beneficence the Almighty seeks to bestow upon the peoples’ representatives are likely already accounted for in his divine plan (for the Calvinists in the audience), or, it can be accomplished just as easily and somewhat less controversially through the legislators’ private prayer rights that are absolutely and unreservedly protected by the First Amendment. And if prayer isn’t so powerful, then no amount of public pandering to religious interests will yield advance any secular governmental interests whatsoever, except for the interest individual legislators have in getting re-elected by friendly religious voters.

2. The challenged state action must not needlessly advance one religious interest over others
The key word in this arm of the test is “needlessly.” Many government actions advance religious interests: for example, tax exemptions for religious institutions doubtlessly advance religious interests, but the rules for those exemptions are so broad and ecumenical that even mafioso cults like Scientology qualify. But a significant component of the complaint in Galloway is that the city council’s prayers are almost entirely delivered by Christians, and the invocations often extend far beyond simple intercessory prayer into outright evangelism. For example, according to the complaint, there has been exactly one attempt to have a Jewish prayer open the town’s sessions, and it wasn’t even clear whether or not the person invited to deliver that prayer was a Jewish clergyman or simply a layman of Jewish background. Given the relative media hubbub that erupts whenever, for example, a Hindu or a Muslim clergyman is selected to lead such prayers in Congress or other legislative bodies, combined with the dire statistical summaries of who leads the prayers in the town of Greece given in the complaints, it stands to reason that the legislative prayer sessions are uniformly Christian in nature, they are highly sectarian, and they are often evangelistic in nature.

3. The challenged state action must not needlessly entangle the state with religion
This arm of the test is the heart of my own objections to legislative prayer sessions. How does the Congress determine who is “qualified” to give an invocation? Does the Congress, or the town of Greece for that matter, have either the authority or the competence to investigate somebody’s religious background sufficiently to know if the prayer they are giving is “accurate?” The very existence of this case suggests that the government is getting too tied up in internecine religious arguments for its own good by having these prayers at all, since the case forces us to investigate the bona fides of public prayer leaders in a way that the state is usually forbidden to do. We don’t want the state deciding that person x is a “real” Christian but that person y is not, that person x’s religion is appropriate for public display but person y’s is not. And yet the scheme of legislative prayer sessions forces us to do just that.

So, if the Lemon Test jurisprudence is so clear, why is this even an issue? Well, as the Second Circuit pointed out, the Supreme Court has had to examine the Constitutional muster of legislative prayer sessions, but in the flagship case in that area, Marsh v. Chambers, the Court did not apply the Lemon Test at all. Instead, the Court provided an articulate and interesting but I think entirely off-topic examination of the long history of American public bodies using prayer on taxpayer time and ruled accordingly. But the Court did not pause to ask itself the basic question of whether or not a violation of the Constitution is validated just because the state has done it a lot, as if the First Amendment comes with a grandfather clause or a statute of limitations, as if the Constitution contemplates ratification of unconstitutional acts just by doing them over and over again for a long time!

As such, while the legal question may be one about the legality of state-sponsored prayer, the practical question is whether or not the Supreme Court will actually use the Lemon Test in answering that question. As I’ve mentioned, the Lemon Test has sometimes been criticized by the conservative wing of the Court, mostly for delivering results unpalatable to Antonin Scalia personally and his acolytes by association. The Court has not clearly spelled out a precise test for when the Lemon Test is appropriate, instead seeming to apply it according to whether or not the outcome desired by the majority can be reached through that test or not. If it can be, the Lemon is hailed as the mainstay of Establishment Clause jurisprudence, and if it can’t, then the Lemon Test is derided as a relic of the liberal excesses of the mid-20th-century Supreme Court. It remains my hope that the Lemon Test, a perfectly lucid and logical exposition of the soul of the secular framework of the Constitution, will be used and will yield the appropriate outcome. If not, we leave it to the future leaders of America to see what happens when you combine political gridlock with religious gridlock, and hope that you all enjoy the outcome.

Sedlock v. Baird: when is a religion not a religion?

July 3, 2013

It’s nice when improper religious advocacy in public school is easy to spot. Teaching creationism, making students pray or recite creed statements, slapping crosses on the walls, those just make for easier cases. If “under God” in the pledge could ever get past the “standing” issue, I think that, too, would be a no-brainer case.

Then there are closer cases. A secular Bible history class, but where the teacher insists on using only the King James version of the Bible to all others – or, insists on exclusively teaching the Catholic apocrypha. A science teacher teaches the evolution curriculum to a T, but does it while rolling her eyes the entire time. “Purity rings.” These are the cases where real doctrine-making gets done, where there are actually cases to argue about.

The Superior Court of California (San Diego) just gave us a hard case that sounds like an easy case, Sedlock v. Baird: teaching yoga in public school gym classes is, apparently, not “religious indoctrination.”

For probably about 99% of the Americans who practice yoga, yoga is a form of exercise – at the most, a hybrid of exercise and meditation. Some of the verbiage surrounding yoga, like bringing out one’s “inner spirit,” or reciting “mantas,” greeting instructors or other pupils with “namaste,” are essentially cultural niceties that have no religious connotations whatsoever. Much like Buddhism, yoga’s importation to the West came with a considerable amount of secularizing, at least where the ordinary practitioner is concerned. Most people who practice yoga probably have just a peripheral awareness that yoga-as-exercise has its origins in yoga-as-religion, as a devotional practice in many forms of Hinduism.

The children of Encinitas Union School District’s public schools are required to take a certain number of hours of physical fitness every school year, and last year the District received a grant from something called the Jois Foundation (which, judging by its website, is a pretty small operation) to use yoga as the school’s primary means of physical fitness. Students whose parents were offended were allowed to opt out; there’s a factual dispute about whether or not those students received an alternative physical fitness program that satisfied the same hourly requirement, but lets put that aside for the moment and talk about the real issue: when is yoga fitness, and when is yoga religion?

The article cited at the top of the post with the news of the ruling is, I think, unfairly condescending to the plaintiffs in this case. The plaintiffs are fundamentalist Christian parents, which doesn’t help their case since it makes it easy to contextualize them as hysterically overreacting, but I’m not as certain as either the Honorable John S. Meyer, who decided this case, or the editorial above’s author.

Doing yoga by itself as exercise makes sense – I’m not a yoga practitioner myself, but I’m not going to seriously dispute that yoga has fitness value. But what I do dispute as having fitness value value are such things as mandala painting, healing prayer, extra credit for properly performing devotional hand gestures, posters depicting Hindu gods with Hindu theological terms written on them, all taught by private yoga instructors of dubious certification. I can’t quite figure out how, even if contextualized as “cultural trappings,” such things are at all appropriate in the context of physical education.

In fact, much of the dismissive verbiage in the op-ed that related this case to me quite distressingly mirrors similarly dismissive language that the Christian right uses to defend its own religious agenda for public schools. “‘Under God’ isn’t a religious marriage, it’s just American cultural trappings!” Ditto Bible readings, school prayers, prayers at graduations or sports games, ditto Ten Commandments on the walls and “theology” lessons or “alternatives to evolution” that always end up sounding like long-form Books of Genesis.

The “cultural trappings” of Hinduism are just as unconstitutional as the cultural trappings of any particular religion in America’s public schools. The knee-jerk reaction to the evangelical Christian plaintiffs in this case is understandable, since this is certainly one of the most martyr-complexed demographics in the body politic; to paraphrase Bertrand Russell, there are few critters on this Earth happier than Christians who think they are being oppressed. But in this case, we shouldn’t be too hasty to side with anything-but-Christianity because anything-like-Christianity is barred by a century of Constitutional jurisprudence and by the wisdom of the secularists who founded this country.

On Christian law schools

January 23, 2013

A planned Canadian law school at Trinity Western University has come under fire for a curious understatement of the Bible’s views on homosexuality. In what I understand to be a potential violation of Canadian human rights law, Trinity Western proposes to maintain, at Canada’s very first Christian law school, a behavior code that forbids students from, among other things, “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of between a man and a woman.

It shouldn’t be surprising that America already has a few Christian-themed law schools, the most famous of which probably is Regent University. This rigorous 3-year program, founded to spread “Christian leadership” throughout America, has historically woefully underperformed on bar passage and stunningly merely broke even with the Virginia state average last year. Some lures of attending Regent include a robust alumni network of Grand Inquisitors for the Grand Ole Party.

And Regent is actually one of the best Christian law schools around. California’s best Christian law school achieved a bar passage rate of 38.8% over the last five years, and all of the unaccredited Christian schools mentioned in that study have bar passage rates ranging from 0% to the 38.8% figure. The Christian law schools that aren’t busy cooking the books instead just come right out and charge you first-tier rates for last-tier lifetime income returns and last-tier job placement – lucky for all the gay students who can’t go to Liberty University.

I think that the main goal of law schools, which is to teach its students the law in a way that makes them fit to represent and advise other people, is fundamentally at odds with Christianity for a number of reasons. One of them is that Christianity has never had a good relationship with education in America. From Scopes to Dover, Christians have opposed honest, accurate science education where it contradicts their scriptures. Likewise with history, especially where it concerns the principles of religious liberty and secular democracy.

I can’t imagine how the law could be any different, especially since Christianity’s aggression upon American education is so entwined with the spectacular legal battles that it has been losing almost since the beginning. How could a Christian Constitutional law professor accurately describe the last fifty years of 1st Amendment jurisprudence without completely dispiriting any aspiring young Christian lawyer who envisions the Christian America promised him by Liberty University or Ave Maria? How is a Christian law school student supposed to get a good understanding of the theories of punishment when they’ve been told all their lives that all wrong-doing is pre-forgiven, that right and wrong don’t matter if you apologize to the right judge?

The fact is that the main problem is that religious was our first attempt at law as much as it was our first attempt at philosophy, and the law has moved on. Society has decided that it is no longer in our best interest to forbid homosexuals from full participation in the economy. Society has decided that apology does not waive crimes. We’ve taken the power of sanctuary from the Church and given it to embassies. We no longer rally nations by papal bull, we do it by international covenant. Churches can no longer freely invalidate marriages or contracts. We don’t permit the Levitical sale of slaves. We now treat the very things God ordered the Israelites to do as war crimes.

A Christian law school is an Apothecary Medical School, it is an Astrological Astronomy School, it is a British government degree granted by druids. Christianity is not just a freewheeling worldview that can be easily imposed upon any body of knowledge – Christianity and its Jewish predecessor texts are themselves a legal theory. Christianity is a theory of justice which says that a third party can forgive disputes between two others on his own behalf. Christianity is a legal theory which says that the law was frozen in place towards the end of the 1st century AD and that anything further is a falling-away. Christianity is a legal theory which says that there are no sovereigns on Earth, only ethereal ones.

I don’t mean to say that I think that Christian law schools teach Old Testament law. What I think is that Christian law schools stem from an intellectual milieu which holds that everything different about American law (or Canadian law) and Biblical law is an aberration. This is the problem. This is why you will never get good results from such a university.