ACLU Defending Religious Freedom Again

If the goal of the ACLU is to destroy Christianity and drive all religion from the public square, as so many fevered demagogues on the right would have us believe, they sure are doing a lousy job of it. They're so incompetent at it that they keep defending the rights of individuals to express their religious views in public (as opposed to government endorsement of them, a distinction that the demagogues like to pretend doesn't exist). Here's the latest example:

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey announced that it filed a motion yesterday to participate as amicus curiae (friend-of-the-court) in a case seeking to uphold the right of an elementary school student to sing a religious song in a voluntary, after-school talent show.

"There is a distinction between speech by a school and speech by individual students," stated ACLU-NJ cooperating attorney Jennifer Klear of Drinker, Biddle & Reath in New York City. "The Constitution protects a student's individual right to express herself, including the right to express herself religiously."

According to the complaint filed by the second-grade student and her parents, an elementary school in Frenchtown prohibited the student, Olivia Turton, from singing the song "Awesome God" in a voluntary, after-school talent show. The talent show was open for anyone from first through eighth grades who wished to play solo instruments, dance, perform a skit or sing to karaoke. Students were permitted to select their own songs or skits so long as they were G-rated.

"Because the school left the choice of songs up to each individual student, no reasonable observer would have believed that the school affirmatively endorsed the content of each student's selection," Klear added. "Therefore, it would not constitute a violation of the separation of church and state. Rather, it's an issue of religious freedom."

"The American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey has dedicated itself to protecting the right of individual religious expression, including recently helping to ensure that jurors are not removed from jury pools for wearing religious clothing and that prisoners are able to obtain religious literature," noted ACLU-NJ Legal Director Ed Barocas. "This student also deserves our full support."

In an ironic sidenote, this lawsuit was filed by the Alliance Defense Fund, a group whose leader, Alan Sears, has just published a book called ACLU vs. America, claiming that the ACLU is intent on destroying religion to establish a nation "with little or no public vestige left of religious faith and the traditional family." Oh heck, why let a little thing like reality get in the way of a perfectly good boogeyman story?

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raj, you're right about the country not burning down but do you blame them for being gunshy:

http://www.adl.org/religion_ps_2004/prayer.asp

I know that prayer and singing are not the same thing but I think the public school officials just don't know where to draw the line.

And speaking of Alan Sears, he wrote another ACLU bashing column in today's WingNutDaily. He forgot to mention the ACLU filing an amicus curiae brief in support of the ADF and this case in New Jersey.

By Jason Spaceman (not verified) on 21 Sep 2005 #permalink

We've been here before. Most people simply do not understand the issue and accept the claim that religion is banned from public schools. In my experience, it is usually the most religious students, parents, teachers, and adminstrators who are most worried that religious expression in school will get them in trouble. Here in Ohio I have yet to meet an atheist principal or superindendent trying to stiffle individual religious expression.

jcw-

I blame them for not knowing the law. In the mid 90s, President Clinton asked the DOJ to send out a package explaining exactly what the law says about religious expression in public schools. A wide range of groups got together, including the ADL, ACLU and various conservative groups, and prepared a paper on what they all agreed was allowed and not allowed in public schools based on the various legal precedents. That paper was sent to every single public school in the nation. There's just no reason why a school administrator isn't familiar with the law.

I put a lot of the blame on religious right demagogues who have exaggerated what the courts have said in order to frighten their followers and get them to send in money. They throw around very loose rhetoric about how the courts have "banned God from the schools", totally glossing over the difference between student-initiated religious expression and school-initiated religious expression. The latter is forbidden, but the former is thriving. There are thousands of student-led bible clubs that meet on school grounds, prayer groups like the See You At the Pole event every year, and so forth. Students are allowed to hand out religious material to their classmates, wear religious symbols or clothing and much more.

Ed,

Thanks for filling me in about the information sent to school administrators and the information in the second paragraph. The knowledge you and your readers have about law and science make this blog well worth reading.

David-

That page includes at least one entirely fictitious quote, from Madison:

"The future and success of America is not in this Constitution, but in the laws of God upon which this Constitution is founded."

This is sometimes the second sentence quoted that begins, ""We've staked the whole future of American civilization not on the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of each and all of us . . . to Govern ourselves according to the commandments of God." It does not appear anywhere in Madison's known writings or speeches and no one has ever found any document of Madison's that includes it. This is yet another "quote" popularized by David Barton which, despite his own retraction of it, continues to circulate.

Ed, Thanks for pointing out the bogus Madison quote. I've seen it before and should have recognized it. What really concerns me, though, is that an outwardly reasonable blog and, apparently a majority of Minnesota legislators, accept the myth of forbidden religion without question. The entrenched ignorance is appalling.

I know that prayer and singing are not the same thing but I think the public school officials just don't know where to draw the line.

One place that they might draw the line might be to eliminate what are characterized as "extra-curricular activities" in US public schools. None. Zero. Zilch. If groups want to rent public school facilities during off hours for extra-curricular activities, they can do so at market rates. Of course, the rates raise other legal issues.