Posts Tagged ‘public schools’

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.

Creationism is dead. Long live creationism!

September 4, 2012

Bill Nye the Science Guy has somehow made headlines this week just by articulating the scientific consensus on the laughable hypothesis that the 6,000-year old Earth and all of the life on it was created in its present form by an invisible wizard in the sky. The tragicomic retorts coming from the creationist crowd, specifically the dunce-hatted Ken Ham, are not just scientifically inaccurate, they’re also contrary to the relentless barrage of legal precedent dealing with the teaching of nonsense in public schools. Here I will provide a primer on just why it is that creationism has lost virtually every legal battle it has ever fought. This primer will be brief, because the case against creationism is, at this point in the case law with the kinds of precedents that have been put in place over the last couple of decades, practically open and shut.

The National Center for Science Education, a think-tank and advocacy group dedicated to protecting standards of excellence in American science classrooms, has a helpful list of ten of the biggest cases in the field. The actual cases are fairly repetitive: laws against teaching evolution, laws targeting evolution for exaggerated criticism, and laws promoting the teaching of creationism share in a broad family of legal flaws. But the most interesting of the cases is the most recent on the list, the famous Kitzmiller v. Dover case, since it provides both a powerful summary of all of the past precedent against creationism, and most clearly articulates into precedent the relatively recent stricture that, legally speaking, creationism is not science.

This point may seem obvious to anyone with even a pedestrian understanding of science, but as a matter of law, it’s an essential part of the following chain of argumentation:

  1. A law must have a secular purpose, must not needlessly advance one religion or religious perspective over another, and it must not excessively entangle the government with religion. (The “Lemon Test,” a controversial but time-tested First Amendment rubric for matters of religion.)
  2. If a law targeting science education has no merits whatsoever for the advancement of science education, it has no secular purpose. (This was the Dover court’s contribution to precedent.)
  3. If a law targeting science education promotes a single interpretation of Christian theology to the exclusion of all other perspectives for no scientific reason, it needlessly advances one religion over another.
  4. If a law requires the government to define creationism and then install monitoring controls to make sure that teachers are teaching the “correct” kind of creationism, then the state is entangled deeply with religion since it must define and then enforce a “correct” interpretation of creationism.

All of this falls apart if creationism is found to be legally scientific. Assuming for argument’s sake that creationism is treated as good science, a law promoting its teaching would have the secular purpose of making science lessons just more scientific by including one more scientific factoid, namely creationism. The advancement of Christian creationism over all other religious hypotheses wouldn’t be needless, because the Christian version would be the only one to date found to be scientific. And the monitoring controls installed to enforce the teaching of creationism wouldn’t be “excessively” entangling because they would be of the same sort we have to use in any science standards, were creationism added to the canon of standard science.

That is why, in my estimation, the linchpin of the legal case against creationism is that creationism is unscientific. None of its religious implications are as Constitutionally troubling if it turns out that creationism is scientifically valid because teaching scientifically valid things in science class, regardless of their peripheral implications, is the core function of science classes.

But thanks to the Dover precedent, the nail is in the coffin: creationism has been beaten back in its every assault on standards for science education. So why does it persist? The reasons are almost certainly cynical politics: evangelical voters eat that stuff right up, and the voter gets what the voter wants. To that end, I’d like to advertise the following warning to every single school board in America considering revising its science standards down to the lowest common denominator:

Dear school board member, state senator, or school administrator planning to sneak creationism into a science classroom,

It has come to my attention that you are about to blunder your way into another major legal defeat for your medieval worldview. As a gesture of good faith, I would like to tell you what will happen if your bill gets passed:

  1. Your school system will become an international laughingstock overnight.
  2. You will get sued.
  3. You will flush away six figures fighting a legal battle, even if the insincere buffoons defending you promise to do it on a volunteer basis.
  4. You will lose.

I urge you to keep all these points in mind. I urge you to introspect deeply on how much you value your job, the jobs of the teachers you employ, and the academic and employment futures of the students who will be victims of your cruel imposition of nonsense.

Your pal,
skepticatlaw