Dispatches from the Creation Wars

In yet another blow to those who have bought the “the ACLU just hates God” line from the religious right, the ACLU has successfully defended the right of a student to place a bible verse in her yearbook. The case involves Abby Moler, the 2001 valedictorian at Sterling Heights Stevenson (a school I know very well from my days in debate. I was the top speaker at that school’s debate tournament in 1984 and my student was in 1989). She was asked, along with a few other top students, was asked to submit a few words to the yearbook for her fellow students. She chose a bible verse and the school told her that they would not put that in the yearbook because it was religious. The Michigan chapter of the ACLU took her case and filed suit and the school district settled the suit today, issuing a letter of apology to Moler and restoring the bible verse to the yearbook as she had submitted it.

You see, contrary to the lies spread about the ACLU by the Pat Robertsons of the world, the ACLU is not opposed to religious expression, it is only opposed to government-endorsed or mandated religious expression. Had the school itself put the bible verses in the yearbook, that would have been impermissable, as it would represent the school’s views. But this was a section where the students themselves got to say something, and that means it represents her views, not the government’s views. That is entirely permissable, and to prevent her from doing so is unconstitutional.

The ACLU supports the right of students to form bible clubs and prayer groups, and supports their right to use school facilities on equal ground with all other groups to do so. They support the right of students to wear religious clothing (it’s too bad France doesn’t have an FLCU) and distribute religious literature (on their own time, not during class of course). They also support the right of outside religious organizations to use school facilities on the same basis as other organizations. It is only when the government itself imposes or endorses a given religious belief or exercise that the ACLU steps in, in great distinction to the hyperbolic and idiotic rhetoric we hear so often from the right wing about the ACLU being “God-haters” who just want to drive religious expression out of the country.

Comments

  1. #1 skippystalin
    May 14, 2004

    If I may offer some recommended reading, Kenneth W. Starr (yes, that Kenn Starr, writes several interesting chapters on the “religion in schools” issues in his book First Among Equals, where he doesn’t mention the ACLU once. Instead he blames the “activist” Warren Court. It’s a pretty compelling argument actually.

    Ome may not agree with Starr, but there’s some interesting backround there.

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    May 15, 2004

    If I may offer some recommended reading, Kenneth W. Starr (yes, that Kenn Starr, writes several interesting chapters on the “religion in schools” issues in his book First Among Equals, where he doesn’t mention the ACLU once. Instead he blames the “activist” Warren Court. It’s a pretty compelling argument actually.

    You don’t say what he blames the Warren court FOR, but I suspect it’s the same litany of allegedly bad things that are trotted out by everyone with an ostensibly conservative judicial viewpoint. I can’t imagine that Starr’s argument is any more compelling than Bork’s or Scalia’s or any of a hundred others. As you may have guessed from reading my other posts on con law, I tend to regard the accusation of “judicial activism” as almost entirely devoid of meaning in most circumstances in which it is used (there are exceptions, of course – Randy Barnett, Cass Sunstein and a few others have attempted to construct an objective and consistent definition of activism separate from political judgements). As Peter Gomes said in an article I cited a couple of months ago, “judicial activism” rarely means anything beyond “a decision that doesn’t enforce my preferred prejudices”.

    This is not a slam on Starr, by the way. I think he really got a bad rap over the Clinton prosecution and has been unfairly maligned by many on the left. I understand his frustration over Clinton entirely. He knew that Clinton was as corrupt as could be (and he was), but he couldn’t prove it. When Clinton handed him a solid perjury case, he finally saw the chance to nail him for something. I can understand that completely.

  3. #3 skippystalin
    May 15, 2004

    What Starr cites the Warren Court for was extending the scope of the Establishment Clause, as also held by the Court in West Virginia State Board v. Barnette (1943) and McCollum v. Board of Education (1948) (which precluded school administration sponsorship of religion) to exclude student expression of relgion on school grounds in Engel v. Vitale (1952) and Abington v. Schempp (1953).

    Starr has even harsher crtiques for the Burger and Rhenquist Courts for affirming and in some cases, broadening these rulings. This not to say I agree with Starr’s views. As a matter of fact, I’m agnostic on the issue. I merely said it made for an interesting argument.

    As to Starr being a conservative activist, the word was that Bush 41 had him on the shortlist for the Court, had anyone other than Marshall retired during his term. This caused something of an outcry in the Justice Department and the neo-con community who felt that Starr wasn’t conservative enough. He was actually something of a black sheep before he went to the OIC.

  4. #4 Ed Brayton
    May 17, 2004

    What Starr cites the Warren Court for was extending the scope of the Establishment Clause, as also held by the Court in West Virginia State Board v. Barnette (1943) and McCollum v. Board of Education (1948) (which precluded school administration sponsorship of religion) to exclude student expression of relgion on school grounds in Engel v. Vitale (1952) and Abington v. Schempp (1953).

    How bizarre. Barnette was not an establishment clause case at all, it was a free speech and free exercise case, the gist of which was that the state cannot compel speech that violates someone’s religious faith or force them to salute the flag. It contains one of the most famous statements from any Supreme Court decision:

    If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.

    And Ken Starr “blames” the court for this decision? I’d love to hear what his compelling argument is against Barnette. I can’t imagine a basis for such a claim that is not transparently absurd.

    McCollum was an establishment clause case, but again there is little doubt that it was decided correctly. The school provided for religion classes taught by ministers during school hours, paid for by tax money, and using school facilities, for which students got credit. And it was hardly a close call, being a 6-1 decision for the plaintiff. Does Starr think this was wrongly decided? I can’t imagine why.

    Where he or you got the idea that Engel v Vitale or Abington v Schempp excluded student expression of religion on school grounds is beyond me. Those cases did not deal with student expression of religion at all, but rather with government-mandated and compulsory religious expression, specifically whether the school could force students to recite the Lord’s Prayer or to recite a state-composed prayer every morning in school. Does Starr think THOSE cases were wrongly decided? If so, I’d say that he is either a moron or a theocrat, and I had never figured him to be either.

  5. #5 Rob Ryan
    May 19, 2004

    Somehow I doubt that O’Reilly and his Fox News cohorts are going to be all over this story. Some anti-secularists are loath to let go of their cherished illusions, one of which is that freedom of religious expression is under siege. They must NEVER watch T.V. on Sundays or listen to our President’s speeches.

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