The religious right has erased even more of the line separating church and state. As AlterNet reports, last month 8,000 high-school students in Montgomery County, Maryland, went home with flyers informing them that nobody is “born gay” and offering therapy if they felt they were experiencing “unwanted same-sex attraction.”
The flier came from a group called Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX). PFOX board member Peter Sprigg is also a senior fellow at the Family Research Council. When interviewed by Chris Matthews, Sprigg stated that “gay behavior” should be criminalized (see video below).
Parents expressed concern over the flier, and some of the students had questions about the information. In response, Superintendent Joshua Starr stated that, although he considered the flier “reprehensible and deplorable,” he had no choice but to allow the information to be disseminated to the students. That’s because the Child Evangelism Fellowship sued the school district to have its fliers distributed through the school and, in 2006, the fourth district circuit court of appeals ruled in the group’s favor. This ruling states that if the district allows outside groups to distribute fliers through the school to students, groups like PFOX cannot be excluded.
When I posted this article on my Facebook page, one of the people on my friend list took this very lightly and stated something to the effect that most high school kids are smart and would reject this kind of material. I thought about that for a second and came to this conclusion: First, that isn’t the point. We’ve come to a very slippery slope in this country when it comes to the separation between church and state. The line has already been blurred and is now at the point where it can be erased through the court system. Second, the notion that high school students cannot be influenced by this material is just plain wrong. I have two children, and I can tell you that children aren’t born with their prejudices and opinions. They are formed over time based on the ideas and attitudes they are exposed to. One of my instant reactions to this is that it’s hard enough to be a teen in high school these days. They do not need this kind of material to make it harder, or to teach them to pass judgment on each other. But I digress.
For those who need a refresher course, here’s what the First Amendment states:
“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The framers of the documents that guide our nation – that would be the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence – were smart enough to know that freedom of religion and the separation of church and state go hand in hand. Keeping government out of the religion business ensures that we can all worship freely (or not worship at all, by the way). In addition, they understood that freedom of religion is not freedom of speech. Unfortunately, neither our present-day courts nor our elected officials are quite as astute on that topic.
The religious right, a multi-headed serpent with millions of dollars to spend, is employing legal advocacy groups to redefine the First Amendment, and it’s working. To put it in simple terms, they are positioning ‘freedom of religion’ as ‘freedom of speech’ with a religious viewpoint. In a 2001 supreme court decision (6-3) in Milford Central School vs. The Good News Club (which, incidentally, is sponsored by the Child Evangelism Fellowship), Justice Clarence Thomas stated that to exclude a group from school because it is religious is to discriminate against its religious viewpoint and is, therefore, a violation of its free speech rights. While Thomas has no problem excluding partisan political groups, he apparently believes that “religion” is a viewpoint and is different. Really? The fact is that the First Amendment’s clause that states that government stays out of the religion business has been diminished, particularly when it comes to schools. The Good News Clubs now offer a sectarian indoctrination program in over 3,400 elementary schools nationwide.
The Child Evangelism Fellowship has litigated and been successful in many states, and its efforts are continuing. In fact, they are now suing a school district in Arizona on the same flier distribution issue. While CEF claims that it is being discriminated against, the fact is that the CEF and its legal advocacy groups are not only undermining religious freedom, but also discriminating themselves (the ultimate hypocrisy, I might add), and their favorite target is LGBT Americans. The CEFS legal defense teams, the Alliance Defense Fund and The Liberty Counsel, prove that by producing books with titles like The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today and Same-Sex Marriage: Putting Every Household at Risk. It’s clear that the only group with an agenda is the religious right, and that agenda is to marginalize and demonize gay people. The only agenda of interest to gay people is to gain their civil rights.
Right-wing Christian groups may claim discrimination, but they are far from being discriminated against. In fact, because Religion has been deemed as ‘special,’ churches and religious organizations pay little or no taxes. Religious groups are also allowed to hire and fire individuals without regard to the laws that other employers must abide by because of their special status. The whole “woe is me” claim is invalid. However, redefining the First Amendment by considering religious indoctrination as free speech has gone too far.
Our court system’s errant decisions have given right-wing Christian groups even more special rights. Schools are forced to provide state-subsidized platforms for Christian proselytizing. They can now feel free to spread their lies and ideology to our children via school systems nationwide. These are beliefs or doctrines, if you will, that non-religious groups would be prevented from disseminating in schools and government institutions.
When I spoke to some people about this, they asked me, “Where does this end?” The short answer is that it will not end until parents, teachers, students and school administrators fight back, school district by school district.