`Protecting' the children from science and religion

IN 1925, America's religious fundamentalists rallied at the Scopes ``Monkey Trial'' in Dayton, Tenn., to protect religion from science. Sixty years later, fundamentalists have gained rulings from federal judges in Tennessee and Alabama that science is religion and children have a right to be protected from it in public schools. Although commentators have attacked and defended each of these individual decisions, they have yet to put the two rulings together and analyze their joint implications for US public education. Since fundamentalists cannot turn back the clock to an era of religiously-dictated curricula, they have instead asserted that the public schools already inculcate religion in the form of ``secular humanism,'' described as the view that man and nature can be understood without reference to God. If religion necessarily pervades public education, the Tennessee and Alabama plaintiffs successfully argued, their own theology must be given equal time. On Oct. 24, 1986, District Court Judge Thomas G. Hull ruled that children of seven fundamentalist parents in Hawkins County, Tenn., could ``opt out'' of a reading program that relied on texts offensive to their religious beliefs. The parents were authorized to pursue ``home study'' with their own texts.

A few months later, on March 5, 1987, District Court Judge W. Brevard Hand banned some 40 textbooks from the Alabama public schools, ruling that they unconstitutionally established the religion of ``secular humanism.'' The Alabama and Tennessee cases, Judge Hand insisted, were distinct. The plaintiffs in his court did not ``want to keep their children from mere exposure to contrary beliefs, or ideas espoused by secular humanism.'' They were seeking ``objective education,'' that encompassed theistic belief as well as secular religion.

In fact, by breaching the line that separates secular from religious teaching, Judge Hand has destroyed the foundation necessary for an objective approach to public education. His decision, combined with that of Judge Hull, threatens to produce curricula tailored to the theologies of individual families, a result inconsistent with a common, secular education for US public school students.

Judge Hand banished from the Alabama classroom dozens of history and social studies texts deemed to be quantitatively and qualitatively slanted against theistic as opposed to humanistic religion. Yet, his own ruling makes it impossible to achieve a balanced presentation of religion in the texts. Quantitatively, fundamentalist plaintiffs in Alabama argued that Christianity should receive preeminent coverage because of the ``numerosity'' of Christian peoples in the US (a quota system for religions?). Jews, however, could argue for expanded coverage of their faith as the foundation of Western spirituality. Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists, in turn, could point to the importance of their religions from an international perspective. Qualitatively, the plaintiffs cite a bias in the texts against the positive aspects of theistic religion; but every scholar knows that theism has its dark side also. What constitutes an ``unbiased'' treatment of religious inspiration and uplift, as well as sectarian persecution and bigotry?

By blurring the distinction between religious and scientific thought, Judge Hand's decision prohibits an impartial approach. Ironically, the testimony presented by the plaintiffs' own experts demonstrated that science is not an alternative religion, but a nonreligious form of thought relying on reason, evidence, and experiment rather than revelation and sacred text. The experts impugned Alabama's texts through an avowedly scientific analysis of how the books portrayed religion's impact on man and society.

Robbed of any common ground for deciding how to ``balance'' the texts, we are returned full circle to Judge Hull's ruling that parents' religious beliefs can be accommodated only by a privatized curriculum. Although Judge Hull did not explicitly recognize ``secular humanism'' as a religion, he did acknowledge that the plaintiffs were objecting to the fact of a secular education itself: ``any accommodation of the plaintiffs in the schools would have the effect of advancing a particular religion and would involve an excessive entanglement between the state and religion.'' Yet every ``sincere'' religious group (including the ``secular humanists,'' Judge Hand would insist) would have the same rights accorded these fundamentalist parents to opt out of an offensive program of study. Any aspect of the curriculum in any public school system in the US could be genuinely at odds with some religious belief.

As the Alabama and Tennessee cases proceed through the appeals process, the courts should reject the effort to use science for restoring coverage of religion to the texts while simultaneously abusing science by subjecting it to tests of religious belief. US education can benefit from an impartial teaching about religion, but it cannot survive a curriculum splintered according to parents' interpretations of divine command. This simple fact has not been lost upon the Rev. Pat Robertson and other well-bankrolled fundamentalists who have strategically assisted the Alabama and Tennessee plaintiffs. Opponents of secular education are fully aware that public schools cannot withstand the fracturing of their curriculum according to the beliefs of America's diverse religious groups.

Allan J. Lichtman is professor of history and associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at the American University.

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