Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A kink in the first amendment

Fox News reports on the case of a student from Capistrano Valley High School (California) suing a history teacher for making such comments as these:

"[W]hen you put on your Jesus glasses, you can't see the truth."

"Conservatives don't want women to avoid pregnancies — that's interfering with God's work."

"When you pray for divine intervention, you're hoping that the spaghetti monster will help you get what you want."

The comment that finally got the judge to rule in favor of the student was referring to creationism as "religious, superstitious nonsense." The court ruled that this, at last, was favoring irreligion over religion, which by recent judicial precedent is considered a violation of the establishment clause of the 1st amendment.

According to the article, the judge tried to "balance" between the rights of the teacher and the student given to them by the 1st amendment. Which brings up an important question: what is this whole debate really about? One thing it's not about in this case or perhaps in any case is whether science and religion are compatible. This case is about power--power over intellectual discussion and over how ideas are presented.

What I'm wondering about is how the first amendment can seriously be applied one way or another in these cases. Conservatives will surely applaud the outcome of this case, but the reasoning used by the courts in these cases is fundamentally inconsistent with the conservative notion of "strict constructionist" interpretation.

That is, a literal interpretation of the first amendment by no means implies that this teacher was in the wrong. One teacher acting out of order does not establish a state religion. Only by extending the establishment clause to provide more general protection could the judge make his decision.

It just seems to me that a "government of laws and not of men" is not going to hold up in these cases, because we're dealing with complicated power struggles. We've created a system in which teachers hired by the government have power over students who may or may not agree with their philosophy. Someone's freedom is going to have to give--there's no way the teacher's right to free speech can be absolutely sacrosanct when students are placed in submission under them.

This power struggle over issues like creation vs. evolution is complicated because the dynamics are different depending on where you are in the country. Many people would like to see this struggle in purely dualistic terms--"us" and "them." In reality, the lines are squiggly, blurry, and otherwise so ill-defined so as to be useless in particular cases such as the one in Capistrano Valley.

Wisdom is what's needed in these cases. I applaud the court's decision in this case. I don't think it was a conservative decision at all. I just think it was a wise decision. (Note that the student didn't demand monetary damages, just that teachers not be allowed to make such comments in the future.) In this case the power seemed too heavy in favor of this rather insensitive teacher, and it needed to be tilted back. In a different case that might not have been true.

As a Christian I think this country needs actions on the part of individuals that promote love. In particular, I think we need court decisions that promote free discussion and remove hostility from the classroom. Frankly, a line by line reading of the constitution will not bring this about. Only wisdom that is borne out through experience with real people will work.

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