Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Getting the Bible out of the Bible Belt!

On January 5, 2010, just outside of Nashville in Wilson County Tennessee, the Wilson County School Board agreed to desist with their annual distribution of Bibles to elementary schools students. Earlier in the school year, all of the 5th graders of Carroll-Oakland Elementary School, including Joann Doe, were taken to an assembly and introduced by the school’s principal to a contingent of representatives of The Gideons. After being told by their principal about her first time being given a Bible, The Gideons proceeded to tell the students about their world-wide Bible distributions. After this speech, each student was called up to the front of the assembly to receive their own copy of the bible; however, the taking of a Bible was not mandatory.

Like the other students of her class, Joann Doe felt pressured to go up and retrieve a Bible of her own due to fear of being ostracized and mocked by her peers. At this point, all the students returned to their respective classrooms and were instructed by their teachers to write their names in their Bibles for “personal use.”

Shortly thereafter, John and Jane Doe, Joann’s parents, went to the ACLU to complain about the Bible circulation. After receiving a letter threatening a lawsuit if the Bible dispersion did not desist, the Wilson County Board of Education agreed to stop the annual distribution of Bibles at Carroll-Oakland Elementary and all other Wilson County Schools.

The agreement “prohibits all Wilson County Schools employees from promoting, endorsing and acquiescing in the distribution of Bibles to students of the Wilson County Schools on school grounds during school hours.”

What is particularly interesting about this case is that former Governor of Arkansas, Republican Party Presidential Candidate, and ordained Southern Baptist minister Mike Huckabee agreed with the ACLU ban on Bibles!

During an interview on the TV show Fox & Friends Huckabee is quoted as stating, “You don’t want the school imposing a religious doctrine on kids. They’re absolutely right. And it’s very difficult for me to ever come to the place where I say I agree with the ACLU.”

This instance of Bible distribution is incredibly similar to other cases surrounding the religion and public school debates. It is clear in this case that the ACLU, along with the Doe family, is concerned with the implicit coercion effect that this has on the students. This is very similar to the situation presented in the Lee v. Weisman graduation ceremony conflict. While the school did not require each student to come up and receive a Bible, the assembly was in fact mandatory. We see a similar situation in Lee v. Weisman as students were not required to join in or stand for the prayer at the graduation ceremony, and in fact not technically “required” to attend graduation; however, one faces the same sort of ostracism and mockery by abstaining from or not attending the event.

Although this case was not taken to the courts, I believe the same outcome would have occurred. While the principal of the school did not mandate that each child take home a Bible, the teacher later had them each write their names in their individual Bibles for “personal use.” If this isn’t an act of coercion, I’m not entirely sure what is! I’m even more shocked to find myself agreeing with Huckabee in his statement that “you don’t want the school imposing a religious doctrine on kids.”

What I’d like to think about with this situation is a hypothetical situation. What if they school board had refused to sign the agreement? If this case had gone to the courts, do we think the courts would strike down the school’s practice of Bible distribution? On what grounds would they have done so? Coercion? Or, do we think the courts might have upheld the practice since “technically” the taking of a Bible was not mandated by the school officials? Just some food for thought…

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Court Clears Reciting of Pledge of Allegiance at Western Schools

The Pledge of Allegiance is recited by millions of students across the United States as a form of patriotism that goes back all the way to their first day of school. Usually before class begins, the principal’s voice on the intercom tells everyone to stand for the pledge; they recite it, and get on with their school day. Although, many students recite the pledge without a care about word context within each stanza, some parents view this as going against everything they stand for. So, the premise of this article focuses on a group of atheist parents from Sacramento, California viewing the pledge as indoctrinating their children about God and how the Court of Appeals ruled against them.

The case titled Newdow v. Rio Linda Union School District was brought into the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, California in December 2007. The argument stems from teacher-led reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance and the reciting of the phrase “one nation under God” that brought atheist parents together on the issue. The plantiff Michael Newdow, a prominent lawyer and atheist, has been pushing this case towards the Supreme Court in 2004. The justices dismissed his case on technical grounds causing him to look for other parents to strengthen his case. However, the 9th Court of Appeals did not see the pledge as a religious message but a traditional patriotic exercise as they ruled 2-1 against Newdow. The dissenting judge, Stephen Reinhardt saw the pledge as being overtly religious forcing many students to recite something they truly do not believe in. However, Newdow still is going to push this issue for rehearing and if that fails back to the Supreme Court, but he believes its pretty futile.

The big question this article presents deals with none other than the Establishment Clause. In the many court cases that we have read dealing with schools and religion from Engel v. Vitale to Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing TP, we see the Establishment Clause show how a mention of God or religion by the government in a public setting such as schools does not violate the law of separation of church and state. However, the Establishment Clause does fall under scrutiny as many of us has seen the Ten Commandments in Courthouses or prayer lead before the beginning of a high school football game i.e. Santa Fe Independent School District v. DOE.

When it comes to my opinion on the subject matter I believe that the 9th circuit Court of Appeals ruled this case pretty fairly. I believe that while some people see the pledge going against everything they stand for the schools can’t simply cater to the minority when it will greatly affect the majority. Unless the atheist parents could get everyone in the school system on their side on the issue then maybe I might reconsider my answer, but it seems that this will not be happening anytime soon.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Most Secular Document Composed . . . or is it?

Over and over in class I hear this statement. That the constitution of the United States of America is in fact one of the most secular documents composed. I for one am partial to secularism within the government realm because I feel that when it comes to religion human beings inevitably make it personal and emotional. After all religion is both personal and emotional and should be left to the decision of the person by the person not for others. But the question is not whether I agree with it but rather is it true and how do Americans feel about this? I feel that when American vote they take into account their morals and through this their religion. The question is although, is that what are founding fathers would have wanted us to do? When the United States was becoming just that did our founding fathers intend for us to make decisions of government nature using our religion as a crutch? Even more so it comes to mind that the founding fathers didn’t know about religions such as Scientology. I find it interesting that this article brings to life a point that many American overlook and should on the contrary take into account and use as a benefit. It states “If religionists better understood the concept of separation of Church & State, they would realize that the wall of separation actually protects their religion. Our secular government allows the free expression of religion and non religion. Today, religions flourish in America; we have more churches than Seven-Elevens.” This is such a wonderfully worded statement that appeals to twenty-first century Americans. So many people believe that America has a “secular constitution” and they automatically insinuate that it is a negative aspect of the country. But on the contrary it is what makes us free. What gives us the opportunity to believe what we want and have that right protected by the government of the country we call home? Think about different countries around the world that do not let their citizens do so. For example, here at Georgia State University I am able to attend Catholic mass during our school wide lunch break, I can go to confession with the priest and we pray the rosary before the actual mass. In Honduras it has been a tradition for decades to have mass during lent. The students are by no means obligated but they can go if they please. The country’s new government has declared it unconstitutional to have this continue arguing separation between church and state. I feel lucky to be able to attend mass at Georgia State where I am sure that the population is not ninety some percent Catholic and Honduras who’s is will not allow their students to willingly practice or have the option of mass at school. This is where this article comes in. Bottom line is that the United States constitution was not created to get rid of religion but to allow it to flourish. One religion will never be favored over another, not because they disregard religion in general but because they respect them all equally. Aid will not be provided to one religion over the other. Not because the government wants the religion to fail but because it should be a fight for the followers to allow it to flourish and in the process enrich them within it. A demonstrated by this statement; “Although many secular and atheist groups fight for the wall of separation, this does not mean that they wish to lawfully eliminate religion from society. On the contrary, you will find no secular or atheist group attempting to ban Christianity, or any other religion from American society. Keeping religion separate allows atheists and religionists alike, to practice their belief systems, regardless how ridiculous they may seem, without government intervention.” The constitution was created to establish order and as a basis of our country’s foundation. Just as we respect its content we must acknowledge that it was created to help us respect each other.

Teaching the Faith

Some of you may recall last week's reported debate raging in Texas over updating that state's school curriculum. Much to the chagrin of secularists and historians, the final selections chosen by the school board in that state have in part reversed a decades-long trend where schools espouse sometimes-unpleasant historical fact and replaced it with comfortable personal beliefs held by the board in question. This article lays out some of the changes made by the board.

It makes me wonder how, in this day and age, such occurrences are still capable. Certainly one would expect flare-ups like this when discussing the topic of human evolution and how it does not wholly agree with Creationist theory, for that is a debate that is still unsettled. But to remove Thomas Jefferson from a listing of influential citizens of the era, simply because he was a secularist? There are boundaries that really should not be crossed, and this one ranks among them. It's censorship based on personal preference.

But what would the courts say? Though the school boards in this country have a long-standing tradition of voting on upcoming curriculum, such a change as that seen in Texas is so radical that it entered the national eye. To me, this is indicative of controversy, and we all know how the courts tend to take up controversial issues.

This isn't excessive entanglement, however, based on the precedent set for years by school boards. THe Lemon Test is passed. Rather, it strikes me as an abuse of power and position by the conservative members of the board who have forsaken their duty to guide children toward adulthood and replaced it with their own prejudices and ill-formed conceptions. The article quotes a David Bradley, voting member of the school board, as saying “I reject the notion by the left of a constitutional separation of church and state." That's all well and good as an opinion, Mr. Bradley, but - as the article points out - the Establishment Clause has never been repealed. While it's true that the actual phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution, its common-law application goes back through the centuries beginning with Howe. Jefferson endorsed it, as seen in both his Treatise on Religious Freedom and his Danbury Church letter. But because it's unpleasant to the religious members of the board, it is to be censored.

This is not simply a local issue, either. Traditionally Texas has been the trend-setter for school boards across the country. If that state has chosen to reject historical fact in favor of personal biases, one can only hope that other states - regardless of their political or religious persuasion - will not follow the pattern seen in the Lone Star State.

Monday, March 22, 2010

“Ave Maria,” Artistic or Religious?

Recently the Supreme Court upheld a decision by the US Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to allow a school district in the state of Washington to veto an orchestral religious piece at a public high school graduation. The Supreme Court in a split decision upheld the ruling of the appeals court that the school officials decision to keep the graduation ceremony secular was a reasonable effort to avoid a constitutional controversy. Traditionally, graduating members of the schools orchestra could choose what they played from their list of songs. Although the song they chose, “Ave Maria,” contained references to god, heaven, and angels, the students had elected to perform a strictly instrumental only version, which they had previously performed in choir recitals. The student who brought the appeal, Kathryn Nurre, claimed that the decision to play “Ave Maria” was made on artistic, not religious grounds, and that the freedom of speech of the members of the orchestra were being violated. Religious and artistic imagery in public settings has been a major constitutional issue since Marsh v Chambers in 1983, and continues to prove pertinent today.

When looking at the ruling in this case one must begin by examining the applicability of the Lemon Test. For starters, and most importantly, is there a secular purpose in this case? By this I of course mean: does the performance of “Ave Maria” at a high school graduation have a secular purpose, or is it clearly a medium for religion. I believe that in this case, with an instrumental only recital, the purpose is explicitly secular. How can performing a piece with instruments only insight religion? The answer is that it can’t, and rather that it’s simply a form of art intended only for the audience’s pleasure, and a clear expression of freedom of speech.

Secondly, is the primary effect of the recital of this song intended to advance religion? Hearing an instrumental version of this song provides no religious effect and furthermore provides less of a religious effect than say God Bless America. While of course one could hone in on the specifics of the song and its original message, would this really be its primary effect in this context? Finally and perhaps the question that should have been addressed first: is there excessive entanglement on the government’s behalf? Taxes go to the government, and from there money is allocated to public schools, so in effect has the government funded a religious orchestra performance? I think that this question is probably the hardest to answer because even if there is the slightest shred of evidence that religion is being promoted than the answer is yes they have, but I do not believe that to be the case here. On the surface, Pawtucket displays of nativity scenes and Nebraska state legislature opening prayers, which we saw in Lynch v Donnelly and Marsh v Chambers respectively, appear to be excessive entanglements of the government. After further dissection however, in both cases, it was ruled that both were constitutionally acceptable because of our countries unique Judeo Christian history and the overall secular purpose both performed. I would like to know how an orchestra performing an instrumental piece at a high school graduation is any different. Clearly all three situations raise eyebrows; however consistency in rulings is a necessary mean and thus the same logic used in Lynch v Donnelly and Marsh v Chambers, should be applied here.

It is possible that opponents of an orchestra performance like such could maintain that religiously routed music belongs in private not public schools, and any shred of religious material is influential and therefore unacceptable. Isn’t it true however that allowing kids in public schools to where turbans, yarmulkes, or crosses, exposes others to religious symbolism. Just as though there exists no compelling state interest to prohibit turbans, yarmulkes, or crosses, in public schools, the same goes for an instrumental version of “Ave Maria.” While it is understood that no right is absolute, the right to freedom of speech, which is clearly in play here, has larger implications as we move forward.

Federal Funding of Abortion

The issue of abortion is heated and on going. At the moment, abortion is legal but a new stipulation to the issue has arisen with President Obama’s health care reform plan. The gist of the President’s bill is general health care expansion, which would in turn allow insurance to cover abortion costs. This article discusses the opposing views of the Catholic Church regarding this bill because of alternative interpretations of it. Nuns have said that they support the bill because despite their opposition to abortion itself the bill benefits the majority and would be an overall good for the country. Bishops on the other hand, along with Michigan’s Democratic representative Bart Stupak, see the bill as making abortion more accessible due to federal money, including taxes paid by those that see abortion as against their religion.

Should those opposed to the health care reform put aside their personal issues for the greater good of the country? Or would allowing public funds to aid abortion be hindering the free exercise of religion, forcing many Americans to pay taxes to a cause against their beliefs?

Although the Catholic religion is not united in their opposition of the health care reform, I do believe it is unconstitutional to provide tax money to a cause that violates so many Americans religious views. The issue here can be related to that in the case of Lynch v. Donnelly, in which Pawtucket residents found it unconstitutional for their taxes to go towards the building and up keeping of a nativity scene. The court ruled that this was not unconstitutional and if I remember correctly, the majority of the class, myself included, disagreed with this decision due to a lack of apparent secular purpose. In contrast, the health care reform definitely has a secular purpose but the issue of abortion, and in Lynch the crèche, makes it offensive to practitioners of certain religions. The Establishment Clause protects American citizens from providing aid to religious causes they do not support such as parochial teaching in secular schools, seen in McCollum v. Board of Education, and I believe Free Exercise is meant to protect Americans from having to pay taxes that go against their religion, as is the issue here. Representative Stupak and the traditionalists did not use this free exercise argument to support their opposition to the bill but I believe they constitutionally could have. I am pro-choice and I believe in Obama's health care reform, but that does not take away from the underlying religious issues concerning abortion. It is unfortunate that it may generally be the case that those in greatest need for the services of an abortion clinic will not be able to afford it and will now not be able to turn to their insurance for help. But that is where our education systems need to come into play and step up in their part of teaching and enforcing safe sex.

In the end, as described in this article, President Obama ordered that no money from passage of the health care bill will be used for abortion, swaying the bishops and Bart Stupak to support the health care reform. I believe this was a good move by the President and necessary to protect American citizens taxes from working against their religious views, beliefs, and practices.

Zoning Battle Escalates to First Amendment Test

In 2003 the First Baptist Church of Clarendon in Arlington, Virginia determined that it needed to renovate or rebuild its church building. However, the Church could not finance a renovation or new building and therefore devised a plan by which it would finance the building with public funds. According to the suit, “the Church decided to make the provision of affordable housing part of its religious mission, and it proposed a plan to develop a new Church facility.” One year later, the plan was approved by the county and construction commenced in December 2009. County residents have attempted to sue to stop construction on the basis of zoning and “intrusiveness,” but have failed. Thus, instead, county resident and financial adviser Peter Glassman is suing the church, the county, and the state in federal court on the basis of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The suit states that the affordable housing provision was not the main purpose of rebuilding the Church, which is evident in the time line of events that took place between 2003 and 2004. Plaintiffs also state that “this case represents a remarkable example of state actor taking unprecedented steps to promote, sponsor and fund the demolition, rebuilding and renovation of a Baptist Church with taxpayer money.” In other words, there is excessive entanglement between church and state. Furthermore, Plaintiffs argue that this case is quintessential violation of the Establishment Clause. The diagram of the new Church shows that the physical layout of the renovated building reflects an obvious religious overtone. The suit states that “the building lobby and entrance will be within the Church portion of the property, and will be shared with the Church. The housing units will share with the Church a common foundation, common elevator, and other common infrastructure such as piping and walls.” Residents of the subsidized housing will be subject daily to the Church’s message.

However, as the author of this article from the Washington Post points out, this is a difficult case to prove. In order to prove that this is a violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause, Plaintiffs must prove that the project fails the Lemon Test, which states that its purpose cannot be religious, it neither advances nor inhibits religion (has no religious effect), or does not create excessive entanglement between the state and the Church.

So, does the Church project pass the Lemon Test?

Although it seems that there is certainly a religious purpose, the County argues that there is a clear secular purpose of creating affordable housing. However, I agree with the Plaintiffs. The original purpose of the project was the rebuilding of the Church and even though that purpose has expanded to include affordable housing, which is certainly secular, I still believe that the religious purpose is the dominating one. On whether the project has a religious effect, I think that it depends. If the space shared by the Church and apartment dwellers contains religious paraphernalia, then there may be an advancement of religion. If this is not the case, then the advancement of religion is a stretch.

Even if I agreed with the County and the Church on the first to accounts of the Lemon Test, the Church project absolutely violates the last part of the test: excessive entanglement. First, “the County granted unprecedented zoning variances to benefit the Church,” which were actually in violation of Arlington’s own zoning ordinances. Second, tax payers’ money was ultimately used for the rebuilding and renovation of the Church.

I will be surprised if the U.S. District Court of Alexandria sides with the County and dismisses the case pending the hearing on the 2nd of April. However, at this point, construction has already begun and a separate non-profit organization, the Views at Clarendon, has been set up to see the development through and manage the apartments thereafter. The affordable housing is needed in Arlington County due to recent incline in real estate prices. Thus, should the renovations simply continue, creating the promised seventy affordable housing units despite the Constitutional violation?

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Red Mass: lobbying the Supreme Court or simple prayer service?

Every year since 1953, the (Catholic) Cathedral of St. Matthew in Washington, D. C. has held a special mass for civil servants. This Red Mass is an invitation-only service meant to celebrate the legal profession. The latest Red Mass was held on Sunday, October 4, 2009—the day before the Supreme Court began its new term. The name of the service, Red Mass, dates back to the 13th century and refers to the red vestments worn by the church celebrants (priests). Although, in the past, Presidents have attended, Obama did not attend the 2009 service; Vice President Biden did. Several Supreme Court Justices always attend. For this last mass, five of the six Roman Catholic Justices attended (Justices Roberts, Sotomayor, Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito), as well as Justice Breyer, who is Jewish. Justice Thomas did not attend even though he is also Roman Catholic. The sermon (or Homily, in the Catholic Church) touched on the issue of abortion while anti-abortion protesters rallied outside the Cathedral steps. Abortion issues were not on the Supreme Court agenda during this term, although the cross in the Mojave National Preserves was.

The idea of bringing together those persons involved in the law of the national government to “simply pray for the wisdom of God” seems so reasonable to those of Christian or fundamentalist backgrounds. After all, our Founding Fathers, admitted that a nation’s leaders required moral fortitude in order to serve the people well and fairly. Even after studying how the Supreme Court derives their decisions and admiring the subtlety and complexity of their arguments, the fact that just before they begin their judiciary responsibilities they attend a religious service expressly seeking the “wisdom of God” seems hypocritical and unsympathetic to the non-Christian and areligious. This Mass combined with the daily harkening of God in the Court implies that this is not a matter of civil religion or symbolic religious discourse. Quite the contrary, this seems to reinforce Justice Douglas’ rendering in Zorach v. Clauson (1952) that “we are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” Six of nine Justices attended this service and I find myself wondering just how they go about distancing themselves from their obvious religious identities when deciding religious causes. Is it any wonder that the Court keeps handing down instantly controversial opinions—even between and among themselves? If the law itself is blind to subjectivity, should not those who prescribe the law also be blind to subjectivity? Attending an obviously sectarian religious service on the wake of a legal term seems to preclude that necessary sense of objectivity.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

"One Nation Under God" Rendered Constitutional

I selected two articles from the Chicago Tribune that discuss the decision made by the federal appeals court on Thursday regarding the phrase “one nation under god” in the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” printed on currency. The first article gives a brief history of the case that ruled in 2002 that the phrase was a violation of The Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment (which “prohibits the enactment of a law or official policy that establishes a religion or religious faith”). The Thursday ruling reversed itself, stating that the phrases are not unconstitutional. The second article (a topic piece), is a simplified version of the first and gives different citations of the judges’ rulings.

In these articles, the two main justifications behind the court’s decision are: first, that these phrases do not breach the establishment clause because neither are required practices (students are not forced to recite the pledge, and it is not essential to have the phrase printed on currency) and second, these phrases are not religious but ceremonial and patriotic (similar to arguments made against Jehovah’s Witnesses refusal to salute the flag).

Although the first of these may seem easier to support than the second, I’m still not sure I’m sold. The first justification states that neither of these phrases is a government statute and therefore isn’t required by the government. Does this mean that as a result the government can’t forbid them either? This seems to be at odds with the objective of the federal government: to protect people from having their rights violated. But, if they aren’t forced to recite it how are their rights violated? Well, it seems unavoidable to handle money in one’s own country which may, for some, represent part of their identity (their nationality which seems to be embracing religious invocations).

This leads to the second justification: that these aren’t religious phrases but ceremonial and/or patriotic. Although there are several issues at hand here when it comes to defining religious terms or what is religious, it seems counterintuitive to claim that these are not religious terms. Claiming they aren’t religious takes away their fundamental meaning which would give it a ceremonial or patriotic meaning in the first place. Furthermore, to claim that such phrases are “patriotic” seems to mean that there is something about these terms that is fundamental to the nation. I’m not sure that this avoids the complaint made by those who object to the phrases. For me, if these phrases are going to be rendered constitutional it should be justified in other terms than these.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Religion and Health Care Reform

In a recent interview on PBS Rob Abernathy and Simone Campbell discussed the role of religion in the health care debate. Before moving into an in depth discussion of the issue, a video of a recent “interfaith” gathering that took place at Washington D.C. is shown. In this video, we see members from a variety of religious groups speak out in favor of a universalized health care plan.

In the interview itself, Abernathy questions Campbell as to her reasons for supporting health care reform. She unsurprisingly begins by claiming that the lack of universal health care in this country is a “moral outrage.” She sounds similar to President Obama, who has called health care reform a “core ethical and moral duty” and has encouraged religious leaders to garner support for it (Unfortunately, President Obama has not explained why he himself sees it as a moral and ethical duty). Thus, it seems that on the surface, Campbell is just reiterating the ethical outlook of the Democratic Party, which vaguely embraces the call for “equal opportunity” and universal access available to all citizens. Supposedly this is an inherent “right” available to people regardless of creed or belief. Towards the end of the interview Campbell hints that her religious convictions might have more to teach.

In discussing the role of death and dying, Campbell brings her religious convictions to bear in a unique and interesting way. She notes that in this country we have a problem dealing with death. She claims that we want to prolong life as much as possible, and avoid accepting death as a part of living. She says, “As a person of faith know it’s not the worst thing that can happen to you.” Her religious perspective comes from her faith as a Catholic Christian and here adds an interesting twist to the debate over instituting a universal health care law. But to hear this voice requires us not to treat health care as a neutrally applicable universal law but instead, as one rooted in an ethical and political history. I have yet to hear such voices echoed on the Left, aside from the vague gestures towards “ethical duty” mentioned above.

What I would like to suggest is that listening to these “religious” voices in the health care debate might indeed add helpful nuance to the debate. When we start viewing health care reform as a particular ethical issue rooted in the politico-ethical background of the U.S. (based on equality, liberty, et cetera) it becomes possible to begin debating the real issue. When we start thinking about how we relate to death as a community, for example, and not just as individuals seeking to prolong their life as long as possible, it becomes possible to re-think how we debate health care. It seems that both sides of the debate have not given enough attention to the ethical implications of universal health care. Instead, the debate has revolved around the economic viability of reform. Thinking through the ethical issue doesn’t require embracing a particular “religious” voice, but it should be a voice that gives “thick” ethical reasoning behind universal healthcare. The religious voice mentioned above is but one example of the type of conversation we need to be having. Thinking about health requires us to think about life, death, and ethics in challenging ways; ways that conversations about the economics of health care do not give attention to; ways that religious voices perhaps do.

Your beard is scaring me so bad, that I can hardly sign this lease.

Suppose that you had decided to purchase or lease a luxury vehicle, but upon arrival at the dealership you were greeted by a bearded man. Would you remain at the dealership and maintain your quest to upgrade your ride, unfazed by your salesman’s choice in grooming habits or would you turn on your heels and hightail it to the nearest car lot free of men with facial hair?

Tri-County Lexus in Little Falls, New Jersey would probably hold that you would do the latter. The PR Newswire Website features an article that explains the details surrounding a racial discrimination lawsuit filed on February 26, 2010 by Gurpreet Kherha and the Sikh Coalition against the aforementioned car dealership. In 2008, after two days of training at the Lexus dealership, Mr. Kherta was asked if his beard was a religious requirement. Kherta explained that as a Sikh American, he was religiously bound to refrain from trimming his hair. Afterwards, a recruiter informed Kherta that per corporate headquarters, Lexus company policy prohibits male employees from maintaining facial hair and an exception would not be made in Kherta’s case, thus eliminating him from the interview process. Before he was questioned regarding his beard, the recruiter had informed Kherta that he was "well-qualified, well-educated, and exactly what [Lexus] was looking for".

The Free Exercise Clause of the US Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act prohibits citizens from being discriminated against based on their religion. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, also known as the American Religious Freedom Act, was passed in 1978 to further defend Native American’s First Amendment right to participate in traditional acts of their religion. The Act not only protects Native American religious freedom, but all Americans who choose to openly express their religion, and it will most likely play a significant role in the Kherta case. Kherta’s story mirrors the Pueblo Native American’s fight to publicly practice their ceremonial dances in that both parties actions were religiously motivated, but were considered unacceptable by authority figures.

Since 9/11, Sikh Americans have been unfairly targeted because of their resemblance to media projections of terrorist agents. Sikhs aren’t even from the Middle East, the religion originated in India and the turbans and beards that Sikh men wear are indicators of their faith in peaceful love of a higher power. On some occasions, uninformed Americans have participated in violent acts against Sikhs for no reason other than hate. After 9/11, a Sikh gas station owner named Balbir Singh Sodhi was gunned down by an angry American who defended his actions as retaliation against Arab terrorists. Kherta being turned down for a job solely because of his beard is nowhere near as devastating as his fellow Sikh being murdered for similar reasons, but it is no less important. When any American is discriminated against because of their religious choices, they are made to unfairly weigh their faith against their secular needs. Kherta’s treatment was definitely at odds with the Free Exercise Clause. Before he was dismissed, the recruiter asked if he “would be willing to remove his beard in order to obtain a job as a Tri-County Lexus sales representative”. By defending his religious choices, Mr. Kherta is playing an integral part in ending the mistreatment of Americans based solely on their faith-based choices regarding their appearance.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Discrimination due to a Religious belief continues to go in circles

The school board cancels the scheduled prom rather than allow same sex dates and cross dressing. The article provides the basic details of the dispute generated by school board regulations concerning a school sponsored prom dance. The two interesting factors are the school boards decision to cancel the dance and the public stated understanding as to why they took this action.

In the years following the Brown v. School Board Supreme Court decision, many school boards and communities would take this same attempt to be ‘non-discriminatory’ by canceling activities rather than change the segregated patterns. Entire school systems were closed rather than provide integrated education. Their thoughts were that if no program was provided for anyone how could they be accused of discriminating against one segment of the population. The prom dance was an issue even after integrated school were established. In many communities the school system no longer sponsored any dances. Taking the place of school proms, and any other dance activity, parents would hold ‘private’ parties. There would be a dance for white students and maybe a separate dance for black students. Economics was a major factors and frequently no ‘black prom’ dance was organized. The interesting response in many communities where two separate dances were held was that the ‘white prom’ was closed and restricted who could attend while the ‘black prom’ was open to all students. The ‘white prom’ fell to low attendance as the white student would explain that the ‘black prom’ was more fun. From a racial civil rights point the prom issue seems to have become a non-issue. It took years of community change but rarely is racial segregation expressed as an issue in school proms.

Here we see the same tactics used to battle a discrimination case: 1) an injured party brings court action to change a discriminatory practice and the official organization responds by canceling the activity, and 2) the private community responds by providing an alternative activity. The specific details will determine court decisions, but the pattern of this response is most interesting.

The highlight of this issue is the statement at the end of the article. “Southside Baptist Church Pastor Bobby Crenshaw said he's seen the South portrayed as "backwards" on Web sites discussing the issue, "but a lot more people here have biblically based values." “ Again religion is seen as the cause of conflict between segments of society rather than a force to bring society together. Why do such people not look inward and see that something must be wrong a religion that is the source of such conflict.