Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center, one of the most moderate and objective church/state scholars in the country, has an excellent essay about religion in public schools and where the line is drawn between personal religious expression, which is constitutionally protected, and government endorsement of religion, which is constitutionally forbidden. He takes a look at two different cases, one in Tennessee involving a group called the "Praying Parents" and one in California involving a school-sponsored Transcendental Meditation club.
The Tennessee case has gotten a lot of attention from the religious right. STACLU has done their usual ranting and raving about the ACLU trying to banish Christianity from the planet over the case. Haynes explains why the ACLU is correct:
Although Praying Parents may have little in common with TM practitioners, the involvement of school officials in both illustrates a widespread misunderstanding of the constitutionally permissible role of religion in public schools.
Parents are free to pray for the school; they can even meet in the school building during non-school hours on the same basis as other community groups. And kids are free to start meditation clubs in high school if the school has other extracurricular clubs. But under the First Amendment, administrators and teachers may not endorse or promote either activity.
As Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has explained, "there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect" (Westside Community Board of Education v. Mergens, 1990).
Apparently, Justice O'Connor's distinction is lost on many people in Wilson County. As soon as the lawsuit was filed, a local city commission issued a news release castigating the ACLU for trying to "banish Christianity from the public schools." According to the commissioners, the issue is the "free exercise rights of students," not school promotion of religion.
But the family represented by the ACLU isn't objecting to Praying Parents, Prayer at the Flagpole or the National Day of Prayer (all mentioned in the lawsuit); it objects to school sponsorship, endorsement and promotion of these. That's the "crucial difference" the First Amendment requires public schools to uphold.
And yet Haynes is the one that praised Larry Witham's book on intelligent design. Witham is a flack for ID who uses terms like "totalitarian Darwinist ideology" without shame. Haynes has also said, "I think many of the scientific organizations have felt they had to
demonize ID in order to win the argument." Moderate and objective? I think not.
Moderate and objective? I think not.
He's right in this case, however. I operate by the principle that ideas matter many orders of magnitude more than the individuals from which they originate.
I didn't say Haynes was right about everything. I said that he's generally a moderate and objective voice on church/state issues, and indeed he is. I have my disagreements with him, but as a general rule he is much more objective than the extremists on both sides of the church/state issue.
Yes, the ACLU is right, but there is still something lost in translation: the _practice_ of Transcendental Meditation is _not_ religious. There's a whole bunch of mysticism, Buddhism, etc, surrounding the various reasons people may be drawn to it, but the practice itself involves no appeals to a Superior Being, nor indeed any use of language at all for any reason. Just mental repetition of a nonsense word accompanied by a particular attitude (indifference) towards whatever thoughts may pass through your mind during the exercise. The benefit is deep relaxation and stress relief. At least, that is how I was taught it back in the early 70's by one of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's initial small group of students.
I must admit however, after my experiences with the third generation acolytes in the Santa Monica & Butler building in LA, this elegant essence has probably become buried in all sorts of nonsense, which may result in the appearance of being an alternative religion, complete with dogma replacing intelligent observation.