Thursday, December 06, 2007

The More Widely Government and Religion Are Separated, The Better It Is for Both

Two commentaries in yesterday’s Houston Chronicle charge that recent actions of the Texas Education Agency (TEA) on teaching evolution in the science curriculum violate the wall of separation between church and state—and suggest more to come.

The commentaries are significant, because they uphold the U.S. Constitution and current Texas education policy against attempts by a sizeable number of Texas Republicans to force conservative Christian religious doctrine on students in public schools.

The charges were leveled in a column by Rick Casey entitled
“Why science needs history,” and in an editorial, “Bad science: Ouster of science curriculum chief suggests religious doctrine might be infecting education agency.”

Both take off from the case of Chris Castillo Comer, a veteran science teacher and for the last nine years TEA’s director of science curriculum.

Comer was suspended after she forwarded an email to some Austin contacts announcing a lecture by Barbara Forrest, professor of philosophy at Southeast Louisiana University and coauthor of “Inside Creationism’s Trojan Horse,” which is critical of the intelligent design movement. The commentaries say Comer was then fired, or forced to resign.

TEA officials say that factors besides the email were involved in the termination, but no other grounds have been claimed.

What is certain is that less than two hours after Comer sent her email, Lizzette Reynolds—the TEA’s senior advisor on state initiatives for less than a year—fired off a memo calling for Comer’s termination. Reynolds said the State Board, the governor and legislators would not like the TEA supporting a criticism of intelligent design, and that recommending the lecture was “an offense that calls for termination or, at the very least, reassignment of responsibilities.”

Reynolds’ prior positions reflect a strong dedication to conservative Republican positions: she was a legislative director for George W. Bush while he was governor of Texas, and then served in his U.S. Department of Education.

Casey asks: “So a science educator should be fired for promoting a lecture by a supporter of science? What kinds of ‘statewide initiatives’ does this senior advisor promote?”

The editorial adds: “Since Texas policy supports the inclusion of evolution in science curriculum, it’s hard to see how Comer was violating state policy by circulating an event notice sent out by a group that endorses teaching evolution.”

Both commentaries conclude that Comer lost her job because she agrees with Forrest’s position that any attempt to teach creationism or intelligent design alongside evolution is basically “to lie to students about evolution.”

Casey notes that “Promoters of creationism and intelligent design sometimes suggest that the biblical account deserves a special place in our schools (as opposed to, say, Hindu or Hopi creation stories) because the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation.”

But he reminds us that the courts have consistently denied the authority of school boards to mandate teaching creationism, and that two years ago a federal judge in Pennsylvania, after listening to six weeks of expert testimony and legal arguments, ruled that intelligent design was nothing more than “creationism relabeled”—and that a local school board could not mandate teaching it.

The commentaries lament that Reynolds’ rationale and Comer’s subsequent termination make it appear that religious conservatives on the TEA and the State Board of Education want to head down the road outlawed in Pennsylvania.

Casey offers a lengthy, excellent analysis showing why the wall of separation is a practical necessity for U.S. democracy—and why injecting religion into the science curriculum is such a dismal, untenable idea.

He cites five examples, from 17th century Boston to 1869 in Cincinnati, of Christian groups trying use public agencies to force other Christian groups to follow disagreeable doctrines.

He argues that initially, at least, the doctrine of separation of church and state “was not a sop to Jews or Muslims or ACLU atheists. It was developed to keep some Christians from ruling the consciences of other Christians, just as for centuries they had attempted to do in Europe.”

I disagree with Casey that the doctrine is not found in the U.S. Constitution. As I noted in a post on 10/22/07, the First Amendment’s language about religion was distilled from Virginia’s “Act for Establishing Religious Freedom,” which Thomas Jefferson proposed as governor in 1779. It was Jefferson who coined the phrase “wall of separation.” It took him seven more years to get the Virginia legislature to pass the act, and three years after that for the language to be added to the Constitution. But Casey is correct in one respect, in that it was not until 1947 that the courts officially adopt Jefferson’s interpretation of religious freedom as binding and normative.

The point, which I have argued in several posts, is that the wall of separation between church and state is necessary to any democracy, not only to keep some Christians from lording it over other Christians, but to prevent any religious group from imposing its doctrines on others. That is why it is important not only for democracy in the United States, but also for civility between Jews and Palestinians and among various branches of Islam in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Casey recalls that in 1869 the issue in Cincinnati was which version of the Bible was best. The Cincinnati school board voted 22-15 to honor the request of Catholic parents to end the reading of the Protestant Bible in school. The Protestants sued, and a three-judge panel over-ruled the school board. But the Ohio Supreme Court reinstated the school board’s decision, arguing in the strongest possible terms that the decision reaffirmed the necessity of separating church and state.

Casey finds the court’s wording persuasive and moving—and important for both church and state to ponder. So do I:

“When Christianity asks the aid of government beyond mere impartial protection, it denies itself. Its laws are divine and not human. Its essential interests lie beyond the reach and range of human governments. United with government, religion never rises above the merest superstition; united with religion, government never rises above the merest despotism; and all history shows us that the more widely and completely they are separated, the better it is for both.”

No comments: