Thursday, November 01, 2007

Gideons Can't Pass Out Bibles in Harnett County Schools

The enclosed story from the Dunn Daily Record describes a decision reached by Harnett County Schools Superintendent Dan Honeycutt. There has been a long-standing practice of allowing the Gideons to distribute bibles in the elementary schools here in Harnett County. Someone complained to the ACLU which contacted Honeycutt to inform him that the practice was illegal. In short, the Harnett County School system has now been notified that the practice of passing out religious literature in its public schools is a violation of federal law. The case, a 1998 Supreme Court case (Peck v. the Upshur County Board of Education) determined that it was a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment for schools to allow Bibles to be passed out to the students. It constitutes an endorsement of religion, a clear violation of decades of case law argued before both conservative and liberal supreme courts. If Harnett County Schools wanted to fight this, it would eventually have to be carried to the U.S. Supreme Court, a very lengthy, expensive process. It would have drained millions away from our school district in a time when we have so many very critical needs, not the least of which is over-crowding and the need for new schools.

This is a no-brainer but there will probably be a loud, vocal outcry from citizens of Harnett County who disagree with this. Most of them will not understand the intent of the First Amendment, that while guaranteeing freedom of religion, it also guarantees freedom from religion. The First Amendment reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof." There are two clauses here: (1) the "free exercise" clause that says that in America, people should be free to practice their faith unhindered by government intrusion; and (2) the "establishment" clause which says that the government (in this case the school system) cannot establish religion or formally endorse one religion over another.

Fifty years ago, the vast majority of children in public schools in the South were reared in Christian homes and attended church regularly. No problem with these kinds of things. No complaints. But, during recent decades, even in rural areas, the religious landscape has changed drastically. Now, even in Harnett County, it is not unusual to find neighborhoods with children from many different religious traditions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and a good number of children growing up in homes that are expressly non-religious. The reasoning behind these legal opinions that have remained fairly consistent over the last 4 decades is that if one religious tradition (in this case Christian) is allowed to distribute their literature, it is a discrimination against those other religious groups.

One may say, "Well, Christians are in the majority and the majority rules." Majority rules is certainly the case in elections. However, when it comes to the Bill of Rights that is certainly not the case. The Bill of Rights exists specifically to protect the rights and voice of the minority opinion. The Founders were concerned with tyranny by the majority and wisely included the Bill of Rights in the Constitution to allow for the minority voice always to have an equal place at the table.

But, there is an even more important issue here. Where is the best place for religious instruction to take place anyway? The logical answer should be in the home. Quite frankly, I don't want public schools teaching my children religion or even influencing them in religious matters, unless it is perhaps a course on world religions which is taught from an objective point of view. In short, there is a fine line between teaching religion and indoctrination. I know this because I teach religion for a living. So, I'd rather the public schools teach my children reading, math, science, social studies, health and p.e. etc. and leave the religious instruction to our home and family.

So, really, while there will be dismay on the part of many citizens in Harnett County. This is a no-brainer and I applaud our superintendent for making this call.

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