This week, leaders of a group known as the Satanic Temple announced that they plan to erect a monument in the Oklahoma capitol building, citing as a precedent the monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments that the legislature authorized to be placed there last year. The new monument will be “child-friendly,” they said, with interactive features that children will enjoy using.
The Satanists credit the legislators for providing them with this opening, because there are now no legal grounds for rejecting the new monument. The legislators are in shock; when they authorized the monument for the Ten Commandments, they had not anticipated that people whose beliefs were highly repellent to them might assert an equal right.
A similar failure to consider the implications of one’s actions seems to permeate the local controversy over demands that public school teachers have no restrictions on their religious expression during the course of their duties. Oklahoma should get our attention. If the protestors had their way, the content of the signature lines of official emails, prayer circles, or scriptures in classrooms could be repellent, indeed. Are the protestors prepared for that, or have they only believed that their own religious tradition is being singled out for “oppression”?
Despite irresponsible rhetoric to the contrary, the national guidelines on religious expression in public schools that the school district is enforcing were not developed in order to “take God out of the schools,” but rather to protect the religious rights of children and parents. All concerned citizens should take a look at them and see for themselves. As Scott Beck pointed out in his letter last week, “A Teacher’s Guide to Religion in the Public Schools” is available online.
What has been largely missing in the local controversy is a discussion of the balance between teachers’ rights and their responsibilities. Most of us condemn the attempts of university professors to influence the political or religious beliefs of their students; shouldn’t we be even more concerned about such influence on young children, who do not have a college student’s critical capacities or life experiences to evaluate what a teacher is saying or doing? The younger the children, the more vulnerable they are to the influence of the authority figure with whom they spend the school day.
Two points are worth stressing. One is that, if we say that teachers should be able to have the freedom to express their religious beliefs at school, we cannot deny that right to adherents of religions that make us feel uncomfortable. The other is that we need to consider to what degree the assertion of one’s own rights (in this case a teacher’s) can infringe on the legitimate rights of others (in this case, those of the students and their parents). Achieving a balance between our claims and others’ claims is the only way that diverse individuals can constitute a stable and harmonious society. It also just happens to be in accord with the Golden Rule, which one could reasonably assume should be in play in this controversy.