Catechism Isn’t The Chess Club: Nevada’s AB 120 and its implications

Prayer in Schools As if the State of Nevada had nothing else with which to concern itself – infrastructure needs, including building maintenance and upgrades, attendance to the backlog of maintenance needs in our parks and other tourist attractions, the need to diversify the economy, the need to address issues surrounding living wages – the Assembled Wisdom will be spending some time on AB 120 – the Put Proselytizing in Public Schools Bill.

Here’s the LCB summary:

“Section 2 of this bill clarifies that pupils at public schools are entitled to: (1) pray to the same extent and under the same circumstances as pupils are allowed to meditate, reflect or speak on nonreligious matters; (2) express a religious viewpoint to the same extent and under the same circumstances as pupils are allowed to express a viewpoint on a nonreligious matter; (3) possess or distribute religious literature to the same extent and under the same circumstances as pupils are allowed to possess or distribute literature on a nonreligious matter; and (4) organize or participate in any prayer group, religious club or religious gathering before, during or after regular school hours to the same extent and under the same circumstances as pupils are allowed to organize and participate in any extracurricular group or activity before, during and after regular school hours.”

There are some problems herein.  The first of which is constitutional. Not the Federal Constitution, but the State one.  The issue is raised in Article XI:

“Sec: 9.  Sectarian instruction prohibited in common schools and university.  No sectarian instruction shall be imparted or tolerated in any school or University that may be established under this Constitution.  Section Ten.  No public money to be used for sectarian purposes.  No public funds of any kind or character whatever, State, County or Municipal, shall be used for sectarian purpose. [Added in 1880. Proposed and passed by the 1877 legislature; agreed to and passed by the 1879 legislature; and approved and ratified by the people at the 1880 general election. See: Statutes of Nevada 1877, p. 221; Statutes of Nevada 1879, p. 149.]”

If a statement, tract, pamphlet, book, audio recording, video recording, etc. is to be distributed among students where does one draw a line between what is an “expression of a viewpoint” and an element of “sectarian instruction?” 

Secondly, the Nevada Constitution is abundantly clear that no public funds of any kind may be used for sectarian purposes.  If a proposed “religious club or religious gathering” is sponsored by the school is a faculty adviser to be assigned? If so, and most districts do require a faculty adviser for the supervision of extracurricular activities, then if the advisor is paid for supervision activities does this create a Constitutional question? Similarly, if the sectarian organization or gathering uses the public school facilities who pays for the heating, cooling, or the light bill?  Since AB 120 says that the access to sectarian activities must be “before, during, and after school” then a reasonable person would have to assume that the schools would be subsidizing the facilities during those times.

There are more tangential issues which need to be explored. For example, what is the origin of the “religious literature,” are these published by a sectarian organization for distribution or are they cranked out on the school copier?  If the latter, is the lease for the copier or attendant fiscal considerations, part of what should be considered the expenditure of public funds?

In some ethereal abstract way giving equal access to everyone sounds nice and tidy, fair and equitable – but the proscription on sectarian instruction creates all manner of issues for which litigation seems the only natural recourse for their resolution.  Natural, but expensive.

There are some other practical considerations which deserve some attention.  For example, does the language in AB 120 imply that religious organizations which have institutional programs for elementary and secondary school students are free to utilize the facilities of the public schools? Does this mean that LDS Seminary programs or Roman Catholic Catechism sessions are included? Does this mean there should be a Melamed tinokos’ (children’s teacher) available for Talmud Torah instruction as in a Cheder?

Bible Study groups present a plethora of issues.  If there is provision for an informal Bible Study group, then must the school make time and space equally available for the Koran? The Talmud? The Buddhist Suttas?  And, while we’re on the subject – which Bible? The King James? The New American Standard? The Revised Standard version? The RSV Catholic Edition?  If there is a “study group” using the King James version, then if parents object must the school offer time and space for the RSV-CE group?

Another practical consideration is predicated on the notion that children, especially adolescents, tend to be pack animals and parents tend to be attuned to individual preferences.  If, for example, instruction or Bible study tends toward a congregationalist  or individualistic interpretation of Scripture then what might be the reaction of parents who tend toward the more  episcopal interpretation?

Assuming the school population mirrors that of an average community, the majority will be some version of Christian – but what version? Further, if the majority is some version of Christian, and the majority of the school population does participate in a morning prayer session, what of the minority students who don’t?   What provisions or accommodations are made for students who come from homes in which it is considered improper to ask God for anything – homes in which only thanks and praise are appropriately  addressed to the deity?  Again — assuming that peer pressure is a profound thing among adolescents – how does the school deal with the individual preferences of the parents? How does it deal with children from the homes of non-Christians, or non-believers?  How does it cope with the feelings of those who feel “left out?”  Or, under pressure to “conform?”

Then there is the matter of what is appropriate in public schools.  There are extremists in nearly all forms of organized religion.  Would materials from the Westboro Baptist Church be appropriate in the Small Town Central Elementary School?  Would the teachings of an Imam associated with the Wahhabist version of Islam be appropriate? Would publications from the Radical Traditional Catholics be appropriate given their hard-core anti-Semitism?  How is a public school to differentiate between the radical and the mundane if ALL “religious viewpoints” are to be given “equal time?”

AB 120 is shot through with both constitutional and practical problems.  The best solution in a public setting might very well be to leave the religious instruction of children in the hands of their parents, and to have the school concentrate its energies and resources on reading, writing, math, science, and the other basic elements of its curricula.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “Catechism Isn’t The Chess Club: Nevada’s AB 120 and its implications

  1. You have really underestimated the potential for what I can only describe as ‘delightful chaos’ that this bill holds. Unless a further section defines the word ‘religious’ and limits it to both ‘western’ (more specifically, Abrahamic) and ‘current’ (and why should I be prevented from attempting to revive an ancient type of worship even if it hasn’t existed for centuries?) you throw the schools into the position of permitting almost any activity that has ever been part of any religious ceremony. (Nota bene the bill does not require the students to be members of the religious group whose ‘position’ is being presented or who is having the religious meeting.)

    But what activity has NOT been part of some religion? Think of the vast range of foods that are either ‘sacramental’ or taboo. Don’t like the ‘cafeteria lady’? Think oivitf how crazy you could make her by demanding a diet based on religious preferences — especially if you change them each morning.

    Enjoy the pleasant fumes of cannabis? Can’t walk the halls with a joint, but the Rastafarians have daily meetings during lunch in Room 227. And so many religions have made forms of sexual activity part of their ceremonies the school should probably turn over one room to a collection of beds and couches.

    (And I’m sure a student who is unprepared for Wednesday’s test can find some group that demanded its members have ‘silent Wednesdays’ and thus he must be excused.)

    Some religious activities probably could be prevented — I don’t see much chance that human sacrifices would pass muster though, as long as the question was still technically open, since it was usually virgins that were sacrificed, it would be another excuse for using the bed room — as a preventative measure ‘just in case.’

    I’m sure you and your readers have even better imaginations and can come up with even wilder scenarios. I almost wish I could vote for it and watch as — in the words of Tom Lehrer’s follower of Lobachevsky — “Ha ha begins the fun.”