Friday, June 17, 2011

Why We Have Very Little Religious Freedom in the USA

Today I was reading about a Vermont high school that prohibited the valedictorian from giving a speech about how God changed his life.  As a person who follows Buddhist beliefs, I'd prefer not to have other religions shoved down my throat, but I believe that we need to respect other people's religions.  I admire all religious traditions that are non-violent and try to make this world a better place.  Personally, I would like to hear about other people's life experiences, as long as the people aren't too preachy or trying to convert me.  I think many groups on all sides, including this school in Vermont, may be misinterpreting the US Constitution.  I'd like to share a personal story about religion when I was in high school, and I welcome your comments.

"The Bible is the ultimate truth for all time and for all people."  That was the repeated message of the Christian pastor who preached inside one of my classes, during my senior year.  I attended high school in St. Augustine, FL, which at the time was mostly white, conservative, and Baptist.  I had a very rough time during 11th and 12th grades, probably because I didn't follow the crowd, and I began to differentiate my beliefs from those of my parents.  The one thing I actually liked about high school was a class called Theory of Knowledge.  I don't know what the point of the class was, other than to expand the worldview of students.  That class is one of the defining reasons that I am a Buddhist today.

The Theory of Knowledge teacher, Mr. B. was amazing.  He taught us about all sorts of crazy stuff like people who do acid to find God, why you should have safe sex because some of his girlfriends had abortions, reincarnation, new age and people who believe cuneiform tablets prove we are descendants of aliens who came here on rockets.  There was talk of Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Wicca, Native American religions and many others.  During the classes, Mr. B. would read a passage from a book or show us a video and then we'd discuss.  Every Thursday we would meditate, and if the pressures of senior year became too much, he never gave you a hard time if you used meditation hour to nap.  Never once did he preach that we should join any of those religions featured in his lectures; he was merely educating us about what was out there.  The group of students nicknamed "The God Squad" apparently didn't like learning about other views and complained to administration, which is what lead to a Baptist pastor trying to convert us as the assistant principal sat guard in the back of the classroom.  Poor Mr. B. looked like he wanted to vomit, but he probably had to follow orders from the higher ups or face losing his job.

My parents never complained and seemed indifferent about the experience, but at the time I felt violated and offended.  At this point, I didn't consider myself a Buddhist and had made my last visit to a Christian church for about the next 10 years.  I was reading a lot about Hinduism, but I didn't have a religion that I called my own.  I agreed with many Buddhist beliefs, but I didn't recognize my beliefs as necessarily being Buddhist Beliefs.  Looking back, I wonder whether my parents would have complained if someone preaching Islamic or Hindu or some other type of conversion had come to my class.  My parents probably would have been outraged, but since their form of religious conversion was being preached in school, they were happy.

I'm pretty sure the preaching in class and prayer by the Baptist pastor violated my constitutional rights, but I'm also pretty sure that the school in Vermont is violating the valedictorian's rights.  Why?  Because much like I have a right to freedom of religion under the First Amendment to the US Constitution, the valedictorian has a right to freedom of speech.  Many people misinterpret "separation of church and state" to mean public school and religion can never go together.  That is simply not true.  The First Amendment says:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech..."

Various court interpretations have defined the exact meaning of the First Amendment, but if a person at a school function merely wishes to relay his or her life experiences related to religion in a public speech, without preaching conversion or praying, it seems that person has a right to do so under freedom of speech.  Interestingly, the other articles on the graduation speech around the Internet seem to be mostly from conservative/Christian sites.  They seem to be outraged because they wanted this student to be able to talk about God. I don't disagree with them, assuming the speech was just about his experiences and not an attempt to convert or force others to engage in his religion.

I believe that education and religion can co-exist, as long as it's not state school sponsored religion.  If the school allows him to preach conversion or lead a public prayer or other things of that nature, it's probably a violation of separation of church and state.  However, if the student just talks about his life and what helped him graduate, even if that's God/religion, couldn't he talk about that as long as he's not suggesting that other people must do the same?  But here's the real question... what if the student was Muslim, or from any other religion?  Would those same people be in favor of that student exercising his freedom of speech?  I'd guess no.

What do you think about religion and education coexisting peacefully?


Corinne Marie said...

This is a great essay!