Courtesy of Bustle.com. And I won’t judge you if you go on to read “7 Weird Signs You’re Not Sleeping Well” or “The 10 Worst Cities for People with Allergies.” As long as you start by clicking on this link . . .
The week before Adam’s official swearing in, the other members of the Town Board fondly ribbed him about taking the oath. They knew his wife was an atheist, and someone quipped that when I held the Bible for him to swear on it would burst into flames.
Adam doesn’t mind being teased, but the joking did introduce an uncomfortable prospect: Would he feel comfortable swearing on a Bible? He was neither a Christian nor a fan of mixing church with state. Could he use a different book, like maybe the U.S. Constitution?
We had only the flimsy paperback copy that the ACLU sends in its fundraising appeals: it could easily be palmed for a magic trick. On New Year’s Day, preparing to leave for Town Hall, I slipped it into my coat pocket.
It was my dress-up coat; hung-over but game, I had cleaned the mascara smudges from my eyelids, re-curled my hair, and donned my pearls in an effort to look wifely. I wanted to show respect for the occasion. And in this respect, I had my doubts about the bendy founding document in my pocket. It didn’t look as important as a Bible (or a TV Guide. Or that little “start here” manual that comes with your new cell phone). So although I thought it was unlikely Adam would be required to swear on a Bible, I feared that his opting out would turn into a thing, perhaps even a story for the local paper. Should that really be Adam’s first public act as an elected official?
All of which is why I, your friendly outspoken atheist, said to my besuited husband on our way out the door, “Oh just use the damn Bible. Who cares?”
Do you make a point or do you stay quiet? On the drive over I thought about a friend of ours who grew up in our upstate New York town but now lives in Texas. He coaches youth football in his spare time, and he emailed me after the first scrimmage of the season this fall. “Before I knew what was happening,” he wrote, “one of the coaches starting leading the team in prayer.” Our friend is not a crusading atheist; he’s just an extremely logical, fair-minded person. Also, apparently, he is brave. He sent me the text he wrote to the prayer-leading coach:
. . . no offense to you or the other coaches, but I think we’ll leave the prayers to the privacy of each player, out of respect to players of all creeds. Guys can do whatever they choose before or after we gather as a team. Yeah, I know, I’m one of the few footballers who thinks that prayer and football aren’t a good mix.
A big strong guy with a voice that carries, an impressive job, and no lack of confidence, our friend is the head coach of this team. But I bet he put a lot of thought into exactly what level of explanation, supplication, and self-deprecation should go into that text. Results were mixed. Although the other coach, the prayer leader, bowed to my friend’s authority as head coach, said the request was offensive: “prayer is always optional,” and people “have the freedom not to bow their heads.”
Prayer is always optional. True: in this country, there’s almost always a way to opt out. In a well-publicized case last year, Air Force higher-ups at first refused to let an airman reenlist because he crossed “so help me God” off his re-enlistment form; eventually, they relented. Most states let you affirm rather than swear an oath; a 1961 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Torcaso v. Watkins) guaranteed the right to oath-related conscientious objection. States that still have “religious test” oaths on their books tend not to make a fuss if someone opts out: they know they don’t have a constitutional leg to stand on.
We arrived, shook some hands, and took our seats. Just as I started to get anxious, the first oath was administered: to a town Justice, who would then administer the rest of the oaths. His wife stood beside him, chic and smiling, one hand clasping . . . the other. The Judge raised his right hand, put his left hand by his side, and repeated:
I, ______, do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and the Constitution of the State of New York, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of _________, according to the best of my ability.
Wait! What? No Bible? No “so help me God”? Just a promise to uphold the federal and state constitutions and do your job as well as you can?
Shortly thereafter, the Judge swore in the Town Supervisor. He brought his own Bible, hefty and worn, festooned with post-its. His wife held it as he swore the same oath everyone else did, except when his was over, he added “so help me God” at the end, unprompted.
That’s it! I thought: opt in, not opt out. Of course! It’s so simple, so . . . fair. If you want to express your religious devotion, if you want to bring God in as a witness, go right ahead. The believer—specifically, the believer who want his beliefs to be a part of the civic occasion—should be the one who stands out. God would probably approve:
“Therefore come out from them and be separate,” says the Lord. (2 Corinthians 6:17)
Be not thou ashamed of the testimony of our Lord. (2 Timothy 1:8)
And, on the off chance that such public declaration invites judgment, ridicule, or worse:
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)
Opting in wouldn’t keep my friend’s football players from praying; it would just keep non-Christian kids from having to make the awkward—and, on a Texas football field, possibly even risky—decision to opt out. In fact that’s what he suggested to his fellow coach in a follow-up text:
No one is standing in the way of anyone on the team worshiping as they wish. But . . . it won’t be a part of team activities. I think an “opt in” system is much more respectful to all than an “opt out” system. No one could realistically walk away from the team once the prayer started, but nothing would stop anyone who wants to pray from gathering privately to do it before team activities.
I wasn’t rereading my email at Town Hall, I swear. I looked up his exact words later. But I was thinking of him as I silently thanked his native and my adoptive state of New York, which afforded me the pleasure of standing by my husband as he swore an unambiguously heartfelt oath. Good old, rational New York State.
Then we all stood for the Pledge of Allegiance and I had to decide whether to say the “under God” part or opt out.
When I was in elementary school, we had Weekday Religious Education once a week. Yes, it was public school. And yes, of course they knew about the separation of church and state. That’s why it was held in a trailer, a few yards off school grounds.
I never went (I wish I had!). Instead I got to stay on the state side of the church/state divide, in an empty classroom, with a book.
Anyway, that was in Virginia in the 1970s. Today the situation is . . .exactly the same. I know that because a friend of mine recently fumed on Facebook about a similar class at her child’s school in Staunton, Virginia. So I was curious: was it possible that Plains Elementary still had that damned trailer?
I called the office, nervous. I didn’t want to sound like a condescending Northerner–or worse, like an atheist on the verge of writing a damning blog entry that tens of people will read.
(I am hopeless as a reporter: I hate to make people uncomfortable.)
The school secretary said, yes, students still go off-site for religious education, but they no longer call it Weekday Religious Education. They call it Released Time. Oh, I said. Released Time. OK, then. Thanks so much for your help.
(See what I mean?)
“Released Time” is short for Released Time Bible Education, a program in which children are “released” from the school day to have religious education. It started in New York in 1905. The Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1945 (McCollum v Board of Education), when Justice Hugo Black wrote that it was “beyond all questions a utilization of the tax-established and tax-supported public school system to aid religious groups to spread their faith.”
But in 1952 (Zorach v Clauson) the Court went the other way, since school buildings were not used in that instance; it decided the schools were merely making “adjustments of their schedules to accommodate the religious needs of the people.”
To me that sounds less like pausing for Christ during the school day and more like closing for Christmas.
Accommodation for religious holidays probably exists across all school districts in the country. My children’s 2015-16 school calendar includes days off for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Good Friday. There’s a mysterious “Holiday Recess” that begins December 24. Easter is so early next year that spring break does not coincide; they have the day off for Good Friday, but that’s it. But we don’t really need a specified day off for Easter, do we? Easter’s always a Sunday, and we would never have school on Sundays because . . . our entire calendar accommodates the religious needs of the people.
But scheduling the required 180 school days around religious holidays (and federal ones, and Superintendent’s Conference Days, whatever they are) is a far cry from setting aside a particular time within the school day for children to go to church.
And it is church;* make no mistake. “Weekday Religious Education” sounds ecumenical and possibly even . . . educational. Every week a different religion! “Released Time” sounds bureaucratic—like what your boss might give you in exchange for working on New Year’s. But if you look at the actual materials, it’s clear they are teaching one specific thing:
“By approval of the School Board, pupils, at the written request of their parents, may be released to the teacher of Weekday Religious Education for the purpose of Bible study for one period a week during the school session” [my italics]. That’s from the school’s permission slip. The trailer church brochure itself states, “The Bible is our textbook . . . The Adventures in Christian Living Curriculum includes the following themes:
“Teacher.” “Study.” “Textbook.” “Curriculum.”
Just like any other class, right? Third-graders in Staunton schools this year will learn how to add and subtract three-digit numbers, why the seasons change, how to draw conclusions from historical fiction, and (if their parents sign the permission slip, which more than 80% of them do), the Life of Jesus.
You can put the trailer off school grounds. You can make attendance optional. You can have “volunteer walkers” escort students to the trailer church. You can use not a squirt of taxpayer funds. But if you put Bible study in your school day and allow the Bible to be called a “textbook,” you are equating learning Christian doctrine with, well, learning.
My friend is not the only one in Staunton who would prefer the school day to be set aside for school subjects. Ten years ago, some parents brought up the issue of Released Time at a meeting of the Staunton School Board. (The Washington Post, in reporting the story, found it noteworthy that Staunton had 24,000 residents and 75 churches.) They felt their children were ostracized, or at least bored, on account of the program. By law, students who don’t go to trailer church can’t do anything particularly edifying with that time, lest the Christian kids fall behind.
The Board bravely tabled the matter, with just one member voting in favor of ending the program: Reverend Edward Scott, pastor of the Allen Chapel AME Church. As Revered Scott explained to the Post:
“It seemed to me the fairest thing was to leave every student in school all day long and provide them the best education we can deliver . . . We should leave religious education to parents and the institutions that are better suited to provide it—the churches.”
Radical. Well, Reverend Scott, maybe one day the children of Staunton shall be released from Released Time. Meanwhile, to be fair, the trailer church situation isn’t exactly the same as when I was a child. My parents had to get special permission to get me out of Bible study; now you have to have a parent’s signature to get in.
That’s progress, right?
* Except on Long Island and parts similar, where the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education conducts a Jewish Hour because “your child has a right to know what it means to be a Jew and what it means to have a relationship with G-d.”