Saturday, February 18, 2012

Anderson v. Chesterfield County School District


Anderson v. Chesterfield County School District is a case in which a law suit is filed by the ACLU(American Civil Liberties Union) on behalf of a “father and a son (both non-believers) who have been ostracized for their objection to repeated official religious events and activities at New Heights Middle School.” In September, all students at New Heights Middle School were compelled to attend and in-school Christian worship rally in which a church minister and a Christian rapper known as “B-SHOC” were to deliver a sermon. These rallies influenced students to pray and “sign a pledge dedicating themselves to Jesus”. These rallies are part of a greater movement in the district in which teachers routinely incorporate prayer in school activities. Many sporting events and concerts begin with a school-sponsored prayer and schools host religious events on campus which the students are urged to attend. Those students who didn’t wish to attend the assembly at New Heights had to serve an in-school detention. Some students who are not Christian are harassed and criticized. The complaint is currently filed by the ACLU for those students who are being punished for not being Christian.
                The actions of the Chesterfield County School District are clearly in violation of the Free-exercise Clause and, more so, the Establishment Clause. The Establishment Clause was included in the Constitution by Madison to gain support of the Leland and Baptists, who feared the creation of a new national church, in order to get the constitution ratified. The original function of the establishment clause was to allow all religions to freely practice their religion without fearing the establishment of another dominating religion. The Free-Exercise clause states that congress cannot prohibit the free exercise of a religion, however, as the Reynolds v. US clarifies, it has a right to interfere with practices.  Chesterfield District has clearly established a religion, Christianity, by not only allowing, but compelling students to attend Christian rallies and sermons. They are also openly hosting religious events, allowing students to become religiously active within a place which is state/government sponsored. A school allowing for such proselytizing in a place which is under government sponsorship is the same as the government establishing a religion.  On top of that, the school is also punishing the students which do not wish to attend by giving them an in-school detention. The school is infringing upon the rights of those students who wish to freely exercise other religions or no religion and this violates the free-exercise clause. One can say that the Christians in the school are only freely exercising Christianity and that they can’t be stopped for this reason or we would be infringing upon their rights, but this is not the case. The issue isn’t that Christians are practicing their religion; the issue is that they are practicing in a state-sponsored place. The issue is even more complicated because the state has a right to interfere in practices of any religion, and since sermons, rallies and religious events are all practices and not just beliefs, the state can rightfully dismantle such practices, especially because such practices send the message that the state is establishing a religion. This is clearly a very controversial issue and the wall between the church and state, as shown by Reynolds v. US case, is very important to maintain because this allows the Government to administer practices which may be concealed and disguised under the concept of religious freedom.
                Court cases such as these continuously remind us of the reasons why these clauses were included in the first place and how these clauses have been interpreted in order to define the limits of state control and individual freedom. If the court is to rule in favor of the Andersons then it is clear that the state still wishes to uphold the separation between church and state, as well as the establishment and free-exercise clause. If the Court is to rule in favor of the School District they will mandatorily need to provide evidence as to how these practices aren’t establishing a religion. One may think that another way to defend the District is by showing that the school also hosts sermons and rallies for other religions and religious events. But this still allows for the same problem to emerge because now the argument can be made that the state is upholding many religions or religion in general as opposed to Atheism, Agnosticism, no religion, etc. Religious freedom is mainly defined by these two clauses, therefore, courts must be very careful as to not interpret these clauses in a way in which they become ineffective and useless. Religious freedom is being able to practice a religion, multiple religions, or even no religion without being persecuted or criticized for it. Also, the religion you choose to practice must be one which is not forced upon you, especially not by the state. 

5 comments:

Anne G said...

Good post Aanal. I believe the ACLU got this one right. If students are compelled to attend religious events then the school's behavior towards them because of these practices needs to stop occurring. Under certain conditions students and teachers do have rights under the First Amendment to pray at school and participate in certain religious activities, such as the "meet me at the flagpole" events. Being harassed to attend or ostracized for not attending would be fearful for a student. This represents a clear infringement of the law and the student's rights. I see an obvious slam dunk for the ACLU and their client against the Chesterfield County School District.

Catherine S said...

Thank you for posting this. I find it very unnerving that the children that did not attend some events had to serve detention. So either they go to essentially a church service or they are punished with detention. The way the events are described, one would think that the school was a private school, but it is not. What made the school (or even the school district) think they could get away with this? The ACLU was in every right to file suit because this is directly against the first amendment, as you stated in your post.

Emrah K said...

This issue is very interesting in terms of the separation of church and state. However, I am confused on one point that what the main problem is. Is the problem that "the issue is that they (Christians) are practicing in a state-sponsored place" or "all students at New Heights Middle School were compelled to attend and in-school Christian worship rally in which a church minister and a Christian rapper known as “B-SHOC” were to deliver a sermon?" If a school does not compel its students to attend to any religious ceremony or event, does it mean that "the state is establishing a religion?" Do you think both of them are the same?Of course here there is a compulsion but I am asking the question to learn what you are against.

Alexis A said...

Emrah, I think the issue here is that students are being compelled to attend what are essentially church services while they are at school. Often students will form Christian or other religious groups which are permitted to meet and use school facilities for their activities, but in those cases participation is voluntary and does not infringe on other students' rights. The school's policy of punishing students with detentions for not attending a Christian event is unacceptable and a complete violation of the other students' right to religious freedom.

Amisha P said...

I agree with Catherine, the way the school is being described seems like a private school. Students who do not wish to attend after or before school activities should not be punish with detention. If rallies were taken place after or before school then the students should not have been punished. If the rallies were taken place during school, then there should have been another location for students to go to if they did not want to attend the rallies. It almost seems like forceful conversion. The students who do not wish to participate are punished which forces them to participate next time. The school seems to be hoping that the word of God will eventually make the students come to these events on their own. I agree with the previous post that the ACLU was right to step in.