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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Donahoe v. Richards, the Shahada, and Education About Religion in Public Schools

In the nineteenth century, many common or public schools, believing that religious and moral education was important but facing doctrinal disagreements within the broad Protestant majority, adopted a practice that John Jeffries and James Ryan call a "least-common-denominator Protestantism" that avoided areas of controversy. In particular, Horace Mann, secretary of the Massachusetts board of education, instituted "a strategy described as 'a stroke of genius.' Mann insisted on Bible reading, without commentary, as the foundation of moral education." Students would simply read aloud the unadorned verses. As Jeffries and Ryan note, this was not at all satisfactory to the Catholic minority or Church officials:

Unaccompanied Bible reading, which was the cornerstone of the Protestant consensus, was to Catholics an affront. Public school students read from the King James Version, which the Catholic Church did not recognize. Indeed, the very fact of a direct and unmediated approach to God contradicted Catholic doctrine. The Douay Bible provided not only the officially approved English translation of the Scriptures, but also authoritative annotation and comment. Reading the unadorned text invited the error of private interpretation. As one cleric put the point in 1840: “The Catholic church tells her children that they must be taught their religion by AUTHORITY--the Sects say, read the bible, judge for yourselves.” [Para.] Religious conflict over Bible reading grew intense. In Maine and Massachusetts, Catholic students suffered beatings or expulsions for refusing to read from the Protestant Bible[.] 
A couple of arguments, relevant for present purposes, were made by the courts that upheld the imposition of discipline in these cases against students who refused to perform the exercise. One was that the courts should not ride herd too closely on particular decisions made by the schools--their choices of particular books or exercises, etc.; the remedy for that must lie in the political process. Another was that merely being required to read Bible verses, without commentary and without any obligation to believe or follow them, 
is not in fact, and is not alleged to have been, [instruction] in articles of faith. No theological doctrines were taught. The creed of no sect was affirmed or denied. The truth or falsehood of the book in which the scholars were required to read, was not asserted. No interference by way of instruction, with the views of the scholars, whether derived from parental or sacerdotal authority, is shown.
The Bible was used merely as a book in which instruction in reading was given. But reading the Bible is no more an interference with religious belief, than would reading the mythology of Greece or Rome be regarded as interfering with religious belief or an affirmance of the pagan creeds. A chapter in the Koran might be read, yet it would not be an affirmation of the truth of Mahomedanism, or an interference with religious faith. The Bible was used merely as a reading book, and for the information contained in it, as the Koran might be, and not for religious instruction; if suitable for that, it was suitable for the purpose for which it was selected. No one was required to believe or punished for disbelief, either in its inspiration or want of inspiration; in the fidelity of the translation or its inaccuracy--or in any set of doctrines deducible or not deducible therefrom.
Donahoe v. Richards, 38 Me. 379, 398-99 (1854); see also Commonwealth v. Cooke, 7 Am. L. Reg. 417, 423 (Boston, Mass., Police Ct. 1859) ("N]o scholar is requested to believe [the Bible], none to receive it as the only true version of the laws of God.").
Obviously, our views on the propriety and constitutionality of religious moral education in public schools have changed, although most people believe public schools should, must, or inevitably will engage in the moral indoctrination of their students. But I don't think that's the only reason many people would have a problem with the program described above, or with the reaction of those contemporary courts to the mandatory reading of Bible verses. I think the current intuition would disapprove of that exercise even if it were taken for granted, as it was at the time, that schools should engage in moral teaching, and that moral teaching involved a Christian component. Students in such a situation are being made to participate personally and vocally in an activity that engages serious questions of belief, and in which reading the verses, with or without belief, nonetheless enacts a kind of statement of faith or a violation of one's own existing faith. It's at least partly a performative act--somewhere in between making a promise or swearing an oath on the one hand, and pretending to get married while appearing in a play on the other, but far closer to the former than the latter. Students should not lightly be asked or required to do it, whether they are told to believe what they say or not.
Given that background, I think some of the reaction to the complaints about a Virginia school teacher who gave students the homework assignment of copying the shahada--the fundamental statement of faith of Islam and one of the five pillars of the faith, generally translated as "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet"--misses something: misses, in fact, the kinds of concerns that make the courts' arguments in cases like Cooke or Donahoe unconvincing.
Lord knows that is no defense of the more heated reactions of parents and others, some of whom sent the usual array of vile threats and disgusting messages. (Also overheated, however, was the subsequent closure of the entire school system for a day by its officials, despite the absence of specific and credible threats.) I shouldn't need to say that, of course, but I want to be clear. Nevertheless, I don't think the defense of the exercise, described in the Washington Post and the Staunton News Leader with the following language, was quite adequate: "The assignment was meant to give students a sense for the art of calligraphy, . . . and the teacher did not have the students translate the statement into English, require students to recite the statement, or say they believed in it." The students were told that the Arabic script they were required to copy was the shahada, and what it meant. The purpose of the exercise was of course quite different from the nineteenth-century practice of reading Bible verses described above, although I imagine that there was a component of moral education involved in the present-day exercise. But the defense of the exercise is not that different, and I think we should react to this particular assignment with at least some caution.
None of this, of course, is meant to disparage the importance, or constitutionality, of religious and/or cultural education in the public schools, or the value, in building civilized citizens, of teaching them about a major faith and civilization in world history. That would be worth doing regardless of any questions of teaching tolerance or combating Islamophobia, for the simple reason that a decent education ought to educate; but of course that too is a part of the value of the lesson, and anti-Islamic sentiment surely had everything to do with the heat of the negative reaction.
That does not mean, however, that any concern about the exercise is illegitimate, or that any and all educational lessons taught with good intentions are equally constitutionally permissible or wise. I am not sure that asking students to copy out by hand the major vow of belief in and allegiance to a particular faith is a permissible or a wise lesson choice, even if an opt-out is given, and for much the same reasons that I think the courts were wrong to uphold the requirement that students read Bible verses aloud without having to believe in them. At a minimum, in responding to the whole incident, we should keep cases like Donahoe v. Richards and Commonwealth v. Cooke somewhere in mind. I have no doubt that students can be taught the words of the shahada, and the shema, and the Lord's Prayer and the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism and so on. But, despite teachers' general enthusiasm for more participatory and hands-on exercises, they should be more cautious in asking students to engage in performative or performative-lite acts or statements involving these or other faiths (including, incidentally, the students' own faiths).       

Posted by Paul Horwitz on December 19, 2015 at 12:22 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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