- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 10, 2001

The frightened clamor for censorship.

If you doubt your premises and the strength of your argument, you are inclined to suppress the opposition to maintain the delusional serenity of certainty. Thus, religious crusaders have given us the Index Liborum Prohibitorum, the Scopes "monkey trial," and modern school board initiatives to exclude or discourage the teaching of evolution.
Prevailing orthodoxy preaches that secularists are different but that they celebrate an emporium of ideas under Voltaire's lofty banner: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it." But some secularists seem as hostile to religious speech as the religiously inspired are of its secular counterpart.
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion. Yet the United States Supreme Court must frequently be enlisted to block secular demands for a Babylonian exile of religious ideas.
The decision in Good News Club vs. Milford Central School (June 11, 2001) is the most recent example.
Under New York law, a school opened its premises for general extracurricular use to instruction in any branch of learning or for social, civic, and recreational meetings. Stephen and Darleen Fournier sponsor the Good News Club, a private Christian organization for children ages 6 to 12.
The club was denied use of the school cafeteria for weekly meetings that emphasize religious instruction. The following meeting vignette is typical.
The club opens with attendance taking by Mrs. Fournier. A recitation of a Bible verse by a responding child is rewarded with a treat. The club then sings songs and plays games that involve learning Bible verses. Mrs. Fournier then relates a Bible story with an addendum that explains its application to the lives of the attendees. The session closes with a prayer and the distribution of treats and Bible verses for memorization.
The club filed suit assailing the constitutionality of the school's preference for secular over religious viewpoints or proselytization. For example, sermonizing and urging ideological conversion in favor of capitalism, Marxism-Leninism, imperialism, democracy, monarchy, Chinese communism, or Republican, Democratic, or Green political party principles were all permitted on school grounds. But when religion offered itself for acceptance in the marketplace of ideas or inculcation, the school grounds were closed.
The club lost as decisively in the federal district court and the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals as did the clergy during the French Revolution earmarked by its deification of Reason. The two insisted that the Constitution was undisturbed by disfavored treatment of religion as a subject for discussion or promotion.
The Supreme Court reversed by a 6-3 margin. Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas underscored that freedom of speech prohibits government from muzzling or handicapping ideas pivoting on the viewpoint expressed, secular or nonsecular. The school, however, championed secular instruction in morals and child character development, but thwarted such instruction from a Christian or other religious angle. The government thumb was thus unconstitutionally exerted against religious ideas.
Defenders of the censorship of religion at work in Good News Club, like dissenting Justice John Paul Stevens, pontificated that proselytizing is constitutionally distinguishable from religious viewpoints. But Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes demolished such glibness in Gitlow vs. New York (1925).
What the Justice said of incitements is equally applicable to indoctrination: "Every idea is an incitement. It offers itself for belief and if believed is acted on unless some other belief outweighs it or some failure of energy stifles the movement at its birth. The only difference between the expression of an opinion and an incitement in the narrower sense is the speaker's enthusiasm for the result."
Promoting secular ideas routinely smacks as much on non-scientific proselytizing or inculcation as does a missionary vocation. The Communist Manifesto is as riddled with counterfactual, unproven assertions and imaginations as anything found in the Old or New Testaments or the Holy Koran. Ditto for "Mein Kampf," Chairman Mao Tse-tung's ideological lunacies that peaked with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and much in the platforms of contemporary political parties in the United States.
In sum, the lifebloods of secularism and religion are equally unknowable, equally mysterious, equally tinged with emotion. Pure reason cannot decide between the two. A mixture is welcomed in the United States because the result advances the public good, not because it answers a Newtonian equation.
Secularists should thus enthuse over ideological battle with the religiously inspired on a level playing field. They should drop their hectoring against President George W. Bush's Charitable Choice Act of 2001 with its evenhanded treatment of the religious and secular in aiding the underprivileged.
A clash of visions mediated by discourse in lieu of swords sharpens understanding and mitigates estrangement. It may not occasion matrimony, but peaceful coexistence would nevertheless be blessed. Isn't one Babylonian exile enough, no matter what the religion or ideology of the exiled?

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