Today I called the office of a Virginia senator and told his staffer that if the senator didn’t want me to open a high school math class by praying to the goddess Kali, he ought to take my advice and vote against the bill under consideration.
Let me explain. The American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia periodically sends out alerts advising members that they may want to lobby members of the Virginia General Assembly (state government) on certain bills. One such came up recently: HJ 593, misleadingly titled “Amending the Virginia Constitution Concerning Freedom of Religion.” You can read the ACLU position. Basically, there is no good reason for this bill to be written the way it is (freedom of religion is already guaranteed in the Virginia state constitution, thanks to Thomas Jefferson), but there is very good reason to believe that this bill is an attempt to confuse the issue of prayer in public schools, with the primary goal of letting Christians pray publicly, such as during classes, over the PA, or at graduation, and to do so “in Jesus’ name.”
Brief tangent into Constitutional law (please feel free to skip): The First Amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Those two clauses, the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, are often seen as being in tension with each other. This is a false tension; in fact, the requirement that Congress not establish a religion is necessary to allow the free exercise. Only people who want their division of religion – their denomination or sub-church – to establish theocratic rule are afraid of the Establishment Clause limiting their rights under the Free Exercise Clause. Since the public schools are paid for by government, their actions can reasonably be read as an establishment of religion. Thus, the Supreme Court has struck a delicate balance in numerous precedents where, roughly, students are allowed to pray any way they like, but no one is allowed to lead someone else in prayer, especially not teachers or school employees, and especially not in a situation where that person seems to be speaking for the school. (Thus, even a student cannot lead a “voluntary” prayer over the PA or at graduation, in most circumstances.) Part of the problem here is that students can’t easily opt out of prayer over the PA or at graduation or even in their classrooms; since they are to some extent compelled to be there, it is especially important that they not be compelled to participate in prayer, so stricter limitations are placed on actions that might be perceived as leading prayer among those compelled to be there.
The purpose of this bill in the Virginia General Assembly seems to be to challenge the Supreme Court ruling on specific points by asserting that individuals have particular rights. Those individuals have those rights, but when they act in a particular role or in a particular sphere, their rights are restricted. If you’re a public school teacher, you aren’t supposed to push your religion on your students (who are compelled to be there, after all, while you are acting as an agent of the government). This is true whether your religion is Christianity, Judaism, Wicca, Hinduism, or anything else. As described above, as far as we can tell, the goal of this bill is to allow teachers to pray (while giving lip service to their students not being required to join in), especially with prayers “in Jesus’ name,” and to allow students to pray as representatives of the school over the PA or at graduations.
As the ACLU suggested, I emailed specific senators to argue against the proposed amendment. The reply I received from one senator’s office read as follows:
Thank you for letting me know of your opposition to HJ 593.
However, the Resolution does not address the subject you spoke of in your letter to me. Specifically, it amends current free exercise of religion provisions of the Virginia Constitution to permit prayer and the recognition of religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including public schools in order to secure further the people’s right to acknowledge God. The amendment also prohibits (i) the composing of school prayers by the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions, and (ii) requiring persons to join in prayer or other religious activity. The current free exercise of religion provisions of the Virginia Constitution mirror those in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and provide for the free exercise of religion and prohibit compelling persons to participate in religious activity.
The problem is that the courts have held that when we pray publicly, we do not have a right to refer to deity as we might wish, that is what has made this amendment necessary.
Please feel free to call or write on this or any other subject of interest to you. I can best represent you by hearing from you and look forward to our continued service together.
Stephen H. Martin
Check out that third paragraph. This reply is so disingenuous it’s almost funny.
I was so upset about this that I took advantage of the conveniently attached phone number to call the senator’s office. I pointed out to the staffer that since this bill seems intent on defending all individuals’ “right to refer to deity as we might wish,” that would imply defending my right to refer to deity as the Goddess, or specifically as the goddess Athena, or Hecate, or Demeter, or Kali.
Since this specifies prayer on school property, this bill would seem to be trying to establish a right for me to stand up in front of the high school math class that I teach (note that I am a certified teacher and could very well be in this position) and offer such a prayer. I would, of course, have to point out that students aren’t compelled to pray along with me, but they’d have a darn hard time avoiding the fact that I’m praying. Which is why the Supreme Court has put in place the restrictions that it has. Which is why the Virginia state government shouldn’t be trying to challenge those restrictions.
I agree with the Supreme Court. If I were a high school teacher, I would have no business praying in front of my class, whether I’m Christian, Wiccan, or anything else. But this attempt to allow school prayer in inappropriate circumstances seems like a way for the senator to support the “rights” of his religious majority. If the senator isn’t going to support those “rights” when it comes to my religious minority, he should oppose the bill.
The staffer took notes and said that she would deliver my comments to the senator. I hope she does. I hope that the specter of one of his children being led by a teacher in prayer to a deity he doesn’t believe in is enough to help him understand viscerally how this bill and similar actions by the Religious Right have a deeply disturbing impact on religious minorities on a regular basis. Since it looks like this bill has died in committee – thankfully! – that may be a moot point.
On the other hand, though, if this bill was passed, the Religious Right might come to regret it as they have come to regret passing the Equal Access Act. Originally designed to allow students to have Christian clubs, the act also allows gay rights clubs and atheist clubs. I believe the technical term for that is that they were “hoist on their own petard.”
Still, we need to fight efforts like this. It’s not enough to let them backfire. I don’t want Wiccan children being forced to sit uncomfortably through teachers or peers leading groups in prayer “in Jesus’ name,” just as much as I don’t want to impose my beliefs on others who disagree with me. If it takes arguments like asking a senator whether he’d want his children led in prayer to Kali, then those are the arguments we need to make.