The Giddy-ons (Gideons) recently tried to hand out
The Only Textbook You’ll Ever Need their Bibbles to kids outside a middle school down the road (2 Billion Bibles in 200 countries! How nice). Some parents were upset, administrators scrambled for their tea-stained copies of the Constitution, and generally. . .in the common manner around here. . .it all seemed to blow over.
I haven’t heard if the Bible Blitz continues, but here’s something I wrote to the local paper which, so far, isn’t choosing to publish (too boring or too sparky?). Most of my readers and other freethinkers won’t be surprised.
“Freethinking and Faith”
The recent response to the Gideon Bible handout near a Tiburon school got me thinking: I wonder how often this happens in this county? How often are faith groups attempting to influence public school students or any of us in the public square?
As a current freethinker (and former faith leader) I’m a strong supporter of our secular Constitution and its protections for free practice of religion as well as clear protection from any government “establishment” of religion. Anyone can freely live their faith within the law, but no public institution (school, council, court, congress) can show preference for one faith over another or show preference for faith over no faith.
Unfortunately, the Bible handout is only one example of how some groups, through proselytizing and coercive activities, seek to claim special privileges in the public square. Whenever someone wants to hand out their “sacred literature,” it naturally invites anyone to hand out alternative “sacred literature.” When one group places a religious message or monument on public property (such as the ten commandment monuments in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Florida, et. al.) it opens the floodgates for groups such as the Hindu Association or the Satanic Temple to place their own statues on public property. A group may wish to have only prayers from their religion said at a graduation, a school sporting event or in a town council meeting, but this is not only insensitive and unfair, it is not legal. Evangelistic groups may not like that, but they have no special privileges under the Constitution and cannot expect exceptional favors from public officials elected by taxpayers of many faiths and no faiths.
There are persistent misunderstandings about expression of faith in public schools (here I rely on the fine work of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, whose director is an ordained Minister). Students can pray, read their scriptures and form clubs, but these activities cannot be led by teachers, administrators, coaches or clergy. All informed educators know this. “Teach others as you want them to teach you” might be a good twist on the old traditions.
What happens in and around our schools impacts the wider public arena. I find it alarming when I hear Presidential candidates claim they are “called by God” to run for office, that America is a “Christian Nation,” that “God’s Law” takes precedence over the laws of the land or that a Muslim should not be elected. This reflects an educational problem. With growing numbers of non-religious people across America, it becomes even more imperative that we competently teach the secular foundations of this country that protect both faith and freethinking.
I have lived and worked for many years with people of many faiths. I think most of them would agree that “faith in the public square” needs to be handled wisely with great sensitivity. Those of us without supernatural beliefs do not seek to eliminate faith but to enhance and enjoy this Big Classroom we call home.
If my daughter was still a student in Marin and she came home to tell me there were people handing out Bibles near her school, I would calmly take her with me to stand on the sidewalk near these folks. I would set up a small table with my copies of the Tao, the Dhammapada, the Gita, the Qur’an and Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason. We would quietly offer an “educational opportunity” for any students who had questions. We might even have a pair of binoculars and a microscope for students to gaze in wonder at the beautiful world naturalist and freethinker John Muir called “Nature’s Bible.”