Religion 101

To attempt to put a more “human face” upon all of this abstract armchair argumentation over the constitutionality and legality (or otherwise) of the government posting or supporting displays of the Ten Commandments in U.S. public schools, let’s wrap things up by just trying to look at the whole issue from a much more personal angle.

Suppose a Native American family — one who perhaps still follows the traditional sacred ways of their indigenous tribe, entailing veneration of the spirits of their ancestors as well as worship of multiple gods and nature spirits — is faced with the prospect of sending their young children to a public school where displays of the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments implicitly denounce (and ostracize) them for failing to exclusively worship the God of Israel alone? How would they feel? Is this fair treatment? Is this genuine “religious freedom”?

How might a young Hindu student, one whose entire extended family for many generations may have been faithful devotees of Vishnu (or perhaps of Shiva, or any of the numerous other popular Hindu deities), feel upon encountering a state-mandated classroom display which proclaims that religious allegiance is due solely to the God of the Bible (rather than, say, to the God of the Bhagavad-Gita)? How might such a Hindu student feel about the presence of a state-supported display which also condemns his or her own family’s longstanding traditional practice of worshipping before statues or other images and likenesses of various Hindu deities, prominently featured at both home and temple altars, as sinful “idol worship”?

How might a young Muslim child, whose family formally prays five times daily and attends a local mosque for weekly congregational worship services at noon every Friday, feel upon seeing a classroom display installed by the state which insists that the especially holy weekday specified by God himself for congregational worship is not Friday after all, but “the Sabbath day” (which, to somewhat oversimplify matters, effectively amounts to Saturday for Jews, and Sunday for Christians)?

What relevance might a religious commandment not to misuse the holy name of the Judeo-Christian God be to a young Buddhist student, who doesn’t even affirm the reality of such a God in the first place (since the religion of Buddhism does not recognize the existence of a Creator God)? Additionally, what if this student’s parents have occupations which require them to work on the Sabbath? Or, if the student is an older teen, what if he or she has a part-time job on the weekends? What is such a student to make of the government-posted, state-approved Judeo-Christian religious commandment which expressly forbids such work as sinful — as a desecration of the sacred Sabbath day?

How might a child raised in a Wiccan family — a youngster who worships a Mother Goddess, who follows traditional pagan religious practices, and who may affirm polytheism or pantheism — feel when confronted every day in school by a government-supported religious classroom display which is meant to affirm monotheism and other core principles of a radically different (and explicitly Judeo-Christian) faith tradition that instead insists upon the sole worship of a Heavenly Father?

How might an atheist student feel when confronted daily by a state-sponsored classroom display officially asserting (and tacitly approving) all of these commandments, which were allegedly revealed millennia ago by a Supreme Being whose very existence the student (and perhaps also the student’s family) does not even believe in?

Posting the Ten Commandments in public schools sends a message. The first four commandments are inherently religious (and narrowly sectarian) in nature and character. Posting or displaying them in any official manner (state-sanctioned, government-approved, taxpayer-supported) would amount to the state sending a clear, biased, and divisive message to every non-Christian student in every U.S. public school: you have the wrong religion; your own government, and even your own school, say so.

Not so very long ago, how might Jewish kids attending U.S. public schools have felt about being led daily, by their own teachers, through a classroom recitation of the quite specifically Christian “Lord’s Prayer” every morning, until this obviously sectarian practice was finally abandoned in the early 1960s as blatantly unconstitutional?

Now, substitute daily classroom recitation of the Lord’s Prayer with posting classroom displays of the Ten Commandments. Then, substitute Jewish kids with agnostic kids, atheist kids, Hindu kids, Buddhist kids, Jain kids, Sikh kids, Confucian kids, Taoist kids, Shinto kids, Zoroastrian kids, Muslim kids, Baha’i kids, Wiccan kids, Santeria kids, Scientologist kids, and… well, you get the idea.

And you can see the problem.