Thursday, January 23, 2014

School Prayer and other Free Exercise of Religion in the Public School

My article from this week's newspapers answering questions about school prayer and other religious exercise in public schools:

Q:  How should Christians approach the question of school prayer?  What about other religious acts and speech in public schools – are there limitations on these things, and how should Christians respond if they believe their rights are being violated? 

Exercising religious freedom in public schools has been a touchy subject over the past few decades of the American experience.  The tendency has been to take either side of an all-or-nothing approach.  This is probably a result of the transition from a former era, which several generations of readers might remember when public schools commonly held teacher-led prayers during the school day. 

Upon being challenged, most instances of such prayers ceased.  Interesting to note is that it is not only atheists or religious minorities who oppose school-sponsored prayer.  Rather many Christians actually oppose prayer in the public schools as well, usually because they do not desire that their children be led in prayers which might contradict the doctrinal position of their church, because the adult leading the prayer is led by a Christian with differing doctrinal convictions. 

In the wake of the school prayer prohibitions, there then occurred an overcorrection of sorts.  Many citizens who were uninformed about the legal reasoning involved began to mistakenly conclude that all religious speech and action are forbidden in public schools.  On the contrary, courts have consistently held that it is acceptable to read various scriptures as world literature or to describe religion in the context of history and the social sciences. 

There are two primary distinctions that should be remembered, both by students and their parents, as well as by school employees, when considering the appropriateness of religious exercise in the public schools:

The first of these deals with who is leading the religious exercise.  Teacher-led or school-initiated religious exercise, such as prayer or proselytization, when held during school hours and within the exercise of their duties as school officials, are uniformly inappropriate, as they constitute government endorsement of religion.  At the same time student-led and initiated cases of religious exercise, including prayer, evangelism, or Bible reading, are generally protected, within one confine – that they do not violate another neutrally-applied rule of the school. 

This constitutes the second distinction regarding a student’s religious freedom in school – that students must obey the neutrally-applied rules of their school - meaning that the rule governs general behavior without targeting or singling out religious exercise. 

So, for example, a school could forbid all clothing that contained graphics or messages, and the rule would be neutrally-applied.  However, if they singled out t-shirts with religious messages, while allowing others, the rule would no longer be neutral.  

Similarly, a school could forbid all literature other than textbooks from a study hall period and have a neutral rule, but if the school allowed students to read popular culture magazines, books on hobbies or athletics or music, or other non-curriculum materials, but restricted students from bringing religious literature, the rule would no longer be neutral, and the district could even face potential legal implications for discriminating against the students. 

Of course, in such an emotionally-charged topic as religion, there will be occasions where the rules are abused, manipulated, or ignored, but Christians should resist the temptation to engage in such tactics.  Instead, the Christian is called to defend their rights as a religious citizen, while at the same time doing so in a legal, ethical, and non-malicious manner. 

The first step should always be to seek to work with the school and its officials to ensure students’ rights are protected, and even if such efforts fail and adversarial means must be used, to pursue the defense of their rights without spitefulness or a desire for revenge, but instead in the interest of protecting the liberty of their neighbors and community. 

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Wedding Cakes, Pornography, and the Christian Conscience - Christians in the Marketplace, Part 2

My article from this week's newspapers is a follow-up to last week's answer about Christians in the marketplace:

What about a Christian business owner – should they participate in transactions that are related to events with which they do not morally agree?

This question addresses the other side of one that was begun in the previous question addressed in this column, and both deal with the question of how Christians live out their moral convictions in the marketplace.  When the Christian is the customer, it does not seem to be their responsibility to be their concern what the business owner’s incidental use of their income outside of the transaction in question. 

However, when the Christian is the service provider, the question is perhaps more complicated.  The Christian, as customer, agrees with the merchant for a product or service and is not substantially involved once the transaction is complete, but the Christian business-owner finds themselves in a more difficult position.

This begins with the business owner’s own conscience.  So, even though their name may not be associated with the immoral act and their service may not directly support the immoral act, they may face a trouble conscience over contributing to the act. 

I can think of an occasion where this was the case when I was working as a service technician repairing computers.  Some of our technicians were uncomfortable with servicing a computer whose use was related to pornography while others, while not supportive of pornography themselves, saw their service of the computer as separate from its use with pornography. 

This issue became even more complicated on an occasion where the computer was not used merely to access pornographic images, but was used in the actual production of pornography, and technicians who were comfortable working on the previous computers were troubled by the prospect of servicing this particular machine.

An even greater level of objection occurred when on on-site service call was received to install computer equipment at an adult entertainment venue near the store.  Technicians who had not been uncomfortable with the previous scenarios now found this to be beyond a level that their conscience could bear. 

This illustrates the variety of levels of involvement a Christian might have when providing a product or service in the marketplace.  Certainly the Christian merchant is not responsible for every action taken with the product they have sold.  Nearly every product can be misused in some sinful way, so the Christian business-owner would have to interview every customer about their intended use of the product, and even then would be confronted with the possibility that the customer had lied.  Obviously, the Christian merchant does not need to trouble themselves with these sort of concerns. 

Some services involve a higher degree of participation than others – either by the nature of or the proximity of the service.  So, for example there is a significant difference between the plumber who fixes the bathroom sink at a strip club and the audio-video technician who designs and installs a system for mass-viewing of sexually-explicit entertainment. 

Likewise, take the example that has made frequent headlines in the news in recent years where services are sought for weddings, but the merchant declines the job because they cannot support the marriage that is occurring.  It seems that here there is also a question of degree here.  The caterer who is providing a meal probably faces less uncertainty about the morality of their involvement than the owner of the venue which hosts the event, and the baker who is tasked with writing the message on the cake or placing the figures of the couple on top is most likely to face a question of conscience for their involvement. 

While I would be uncomfortable instituting church discipline to require or forbid individual Christian participation in business transactions which cause questions of conscience, it seems that it is certainly necessary to respect the weight which such decisions place on people of moral conviction.  One would hope that state and federal law would recognize this by protecting the conscience right of merchants, while at the same time those merchants ultimately have the obligation to follow Acts 5:29’s instruction to “obey God rather than man,” in matters of conscience, regardless of law to the contrary.