Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Religious Depictions in School

I am going to like the fact that we have a Supreme Court nominee with actual judicial experience. Granted, I am interested in the moral dimensions of these issues rather than the legal issues, there are moral issues at work behind the law. These moral principles are how we distinguish just from unjust law. Let the judges determine what the law is and what the law is not. My interest is in what the law ought and ought not to be.

Supreme Court Nominee Samuel Alito offered a dissenting opinion in the case of C.H. v. Olivia. In this case, a teacher (Olivia) asked students to draw a picture of what they were thankful for as a Thanksgiving Day assignment. One student drew a picture depicting Jesus.

The teacher than displayed all of the children's art in the hallway, with this picture placed nearest the door. The next day, when the teacher was absent, an unknown person or persons took down this religiously-themed picture. When the teacher returned, there was a dispute as to what should be done with the picture. The teachers reached a compromise that the picture could be posted, but in a less conspicuous spot down the hall.

If I could play a "moral court" judge for a moment…

This moral court finds that the teacher acted appropriately in placing this student's picture with the other pictures in the classroom display. Accordingly, it was wrong for anybody to remove the picture, or to restore it in a place less prominent than its original location (assuming that it was not given its original position because of its religious content).

There is no other action consistent with a government school's requirement to remain neutral in matters of religion. Removing the picture conveys the message that religion is to be ashamed of, that it is something that cannot be shown in public. It portrays religious images as "less fit" for public display than other sorts of images.

The Debate

The case description talks about a debate among teachers about what should be done with the picture. I am curious about the nature of the debate.

Was it a dispute where some people were offended by the picture and demanded that it be taken down for that reason? Or was it the case that some teachers wrongly assumed that the image violated some school or national policy and were simply trying to stay within what they thought the rules required of them?

As it turns out, there was no rule prohibiting this type of picture being displayed with the others, and there should not be such a rule. Yet, it is easy to understand how a group of people might not be aware of this.

There are a lot of people out there (with control of the microphone), spreading rumors that liberals and atheists are trying to eliminate all mention and depiction of religion in public. Where people hear these . . . let's be honest . . . lies . . . repeated over and over again, it is reasonable to expect that some will believe them. They will assume that these rules actually exist, and try to act in a way that conforms to these rules, at least until the rules get changed.

In fact, what most secularists are trying to prohibit is not "all mention of religion in public", but for any religion to get an official government stamp of approval.

If a group of citizens walk into the rotunda of the Capital Building and form a prayer circle, as long as they are not speaking or shouting in a manner that disturbs the other visitors, there is nothing wrong – no matter how conspicuous they are. However, a plaque built into the wall or a permanent monument says, "These views bear the official government seal of approval. This is the approved religion.”

A student's expression of his own attitude that "I am thankful for Jesus" bears no official government stamp of approval. It is not the government's picture. It is the student's picture. Signaling that picture out because of its content and saying that it cannot be displayed says that the content bears an official government stamp of disapproval. This is as wrong as an official government stamp of approval.

This is the truth, but certain religious/political forces find that the truth is not very useful in promoting their agenda. They shout these lies so loudly and so often that they have confused people, contributing to situations such as this where the teachers truly do not know what the rules are.

Ironically, the people who use these lies then take the confusion that they create and twist it in order to give the lie more power. They will take a case like this and shout, "Look! Look! Liberals and atheists are trying to remove all religious expression in public places! Look at them try to make this poor innocent child feel ashamed for saying that he is thankful for Jesus!"

By the way, everything that I have written about pictures applies to books as well. A child should not be prohibited from carrying about and reading religious texts or from writing about them if they are appropriate to the assignment that the students have been given.


In this case, there is a complication to consider. The student’s picture was originally placed in a prominent position near the classroom door, allegedly because of its “high quality”. Because quality is a subjective feature, it is easy for a prejudiced teacher to claim “quality” when his or intent is to promote a religious message.

These currents of bigotry exist everywhere. We have concerns over whether teachers are treating boys better than girls, white students better than black students, rich students better than poor students, jocks better than nerds, or vica versa. Clearly there is reason to be concerned over the possibility of a teacher exhibiting religious bigotry – particularly since religious bigotry is still very widely endorsed.

However, banning religious depictions is not an effective way of dealing with this type of bigotry – any more than a prohibition of depictions of people is an effective day of dealing with racism.


Let us look now at the moral rules that these theocrats are trying to foist on the rest of the nation. They insist that they have a right to do to those who hold other religious viewpoints things that they insist that those who hold these other religious viewpoints have no right to do to them.

They protest a teacher’s decision to act in ways that single out and exclude the Christian child, while at the same time insisting on daily rituals that signal out and exclude non-Christian (or non-monotheist) children. The Christian child may not be made to feel shame for being a Christian, but the school must take steps to make non-Christians feel shame and alienation for not accepting Christianity.

“In God We Trust” gives an official stamp of approval to those who trust in God and an official stamp of disapproval to those who do not. Excluding a child’s religiously-themed picture from a school display is said to be a moral travesty, but excluding non-theists from patriotic ceremonies such as a Pledge is considered not only acceptable, proposing a more inclusive ritual is treated like treason.

Then again, moral consistency and integrity, it seems, is not their strong suit.


Anonymous said...

What was the court's ruling in C.H. v. Olivia?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The issue was dismissed on a technicality. The plaintiff, did not establish that the discrimination was a matter of policy.