Sunday, April 3, 2016

Opening societal debate through the free exercise right

In a school district located in Colorado, religious groups are authorized to distribute literature on campuses, mostly to middle school and high school students. This way, a Christian group regularly hands out Gideon Bibles to students during school hours, on school premises. As a response to this current state of things, the FFRF (Freedom From Religion Foundation), the Satanic Temple (that I previously presented in my first article) and a local association of atheists tried to distribute their own religious literature to students. However, the school district opposed their right to distribute their own religious literature, and this resulted in a lawsuit conducted by the FFRF against the school district, which the group won. Thus, the school district now has to unable the distribution, which will proceed today, on the 1st of April [time of writing]. It is true that contrary to the first case I studied, in this one, the political dimension is much more explicit. The FFRF describes itself as a lobby group which promotes political dialogue independent of religion, that is to say the group defends a separationist point of view on the First Amendment. In the case of the Colorado school district, I do believe that the FFRF, the Satanic Temple and the atheistic association gathered so to be a powerful enough counterweight to Christian associations like Focus on the Family later in Court: the Satanic Temple to represent religious interests and the atheistic association more specifically to represent local interests, and the FFRF as a way to have greater means of action. As a matter of fact, this combination seemed to work, for they won the lawsuit, for which the school district had to pay fees of $90,000.

The comments made after the lawsuit by a Focus on the Family representative, Candi Cushman, illustrate why the fact the school district tried to block the atheistic and Satanist literature to be distributed was an infringement of the free exercise clause. First of all, she argues that “common-sense standards of decency should apply to these [books]”. I do see what she is trying to say, but terms like “common-sense” and “decency” just do not have any place in judiciary cases about religion, except of course when sexual content or something that directly promotes and/or causes physical harm is in question, but this is not the case here. The main problem with that declaration is that it presupposes the idea that some religions are to be considered as “good ones” by the government, and some others as “bad ones”, or “evil ones”. Nonetheless, again, this is just not in concordance with the First Amendment, regardless of what kind of point of view – accommodationist or separationist – you believe is the best: the government must be blind to the components of religious beliefs, except of course, once again, if those concretely physically harm anyone in any manner. The second declaration made by Candi Cushman quoted in the article that I would like to analyze is the following: “From the images displayed on recent television reports on this story, it appears that some of the materials may be disparaging of other religious viewpoints and even lewd in their depictions.” This declaration is theoretically right: it is true that atheism and Satanism are indeed religious beliefs that by nature go against mainstream theistic religions. But the fact that those beliefs appear as hateful is not enough on a legal level to dismiss the free exercise right that comes with them. Some aspects of mainstream religions do appear like signs of hatred to other religions and/or to non-religious people, and still they are most of the time tolerated by the law.

However, this case does go further on religious freedom than the first one I approached. Candi Cushman continues her comments on the case by saying that “[s]he contends that the God’s Truth will ultimately win against Satan’s lies.” That is to say she recognizes the right of the atheistic and Satanist religious groups to distribute their literature, for she believes on a spiritual level that the “truth” will prevail. From a constitutional perspective, this is perfectly fine: this woman is free to believe what she wants to, and the fight between atheism and Satanism on the one side and Christianity on the other side is actually also free to take place from a constitutional perspective, as long as it stays out of the legal framework and that it is not up to the government to designate a “victor”. This debate between the various religious groups initiated by the atheistic and Satanist associations actually created a new conversation among the school district officials, for they now consider regulating the distribution of literature to young students. They are considering restricting certain contents that “promot[e] hostility or violence, commercial purposes by advertising a product, interfer[e] with the schools, promot[e] candidacy in an election or [are] obscene or pornographic”. Of course, it is yet difficult to know what will exactly be regulated, but I think this is a healthy conversation to engage into, because it concerns young students. I do believe that this is particularly beneficial to society that this case did not end in the judiciary system choosing one side or the other but rather granting the free exercise right to all, and that it pushed officials to think about what consequences certain types of literature can have on young people. What is your stand on the case? Do you think that the Court should have stopped the distribution of the anti-religious literature?


Kaily G said...

Caroline, I am in complete agreement with you. The public school in Colorado was already allowing for some religions to distribute literature to their students. Thus, in order to respect the Establishment Clause, and not favor certain religions over others, all groups must be allowed to distribute literature. Although Satanists are arguably “disparaging to other religions” I think this could be said of all religions. Meaning, every religion clashes in one way or another. For example, Christianity is a monotheistic religion where there is only one God. Thus, does Hinduism “disparage” Christianity because it is a religion believing in many Gods? I highly doubt this to be the case. To that end, Satanists prioritize individuality and believe that oneself is the most important person, a God if you will. So, although religions will never agree with one another, how can the government, with the Establishment Clause in place, say which religious principles are valid? Furthermore, I think there is much validity in being exposed to viewpoints which are not commonplace and even possibly hurtful. The importance of being exposed to opinions we don't agree with is being able to articulate why we don’t agree with them. To strengthen an argument you must dedicate time in trying to understand the other perspective. Thus, to shelter students from this experience of being exposed to all religious literature is to hinder their ability to practice making opinions and being able to articulate them.

Liz S. said...

I agree with both you Caroline, and Kaily. Because other religious groups could hand out their materials, when the school district tried to prevent the Satanist group from handing out their materials, they were clearly showing preference to more traditional American religions such as Christianity or Judaism. Because of this, since the school seemed to be preferring most religions over this Satanic religion, there was a clear establishment of religion in this school system, which since it is public is part of the government. In this case I agree that if the school chose to allow religious groups to distribute materials, all religious groups should have that same right, no matter if they are in the minority or majority. I do think that generally, religion should have no place in public schools generally because children are so easily influenced. I think that I was wrong for religious organizations to use the space of the public schools, during school hours, to advance their religious agendas and I think that in the future a movement should be made to disallow religious groups from handing out materials on school property during the school day.

Sara G. said...

I completely agree with both of you. I don't think that religion has a place in schools and no religious materials should be allowed to be distributed. By opening up the school as an open forum for religious materials the school is violating the Establishment Clause by allowing religious messages to be publicly presented during the school day. However, like you've both said, the school already allowed the bibles to be distributed and makes no mention in their rules that religious materials are restricted, so in order to not form an establishment they must allow any other religious materials donated to be distributed until they change the policy and restrict religious materials being distributed at all. To allow the bibles and not allow the materials from the atheist group and The Satanic Temple would undoubtably constitute an establishment of religion by the school by only allowing the views of one group to be displayed. The religious message doesn't matter when dealing with neutrality and I agree that the argument cannot be made that TST's material can be restricted because it goes against Christianity since Christianity just as equally goes against the teachings of TST.