23 October 2000
American Civil Liberties Union
People For the American Way
In Culpeper County, Virginia, elementary school students are taken out of class during school hours to a bus parked a few feet off school property. The county school system claims to know and to want to know nothing about what the students are taught on the bus. Some students choose not to participate in this activity, and their time is intentionally wasted with busy work because the schools are obliged not to do anything important while so many students are doing who-knows-what on a bus off school grounds. By some reports, the students who opt out of this bizarre procedure, so carefully designed to skirt the intent of a number of laws, are treated badly by their classmates and teachers as a result.
The only thing the public knows about the teachings on the bus is that they involve Christianity. One would think that in a nation and a state famous for creating and sharing with the world the idea of religious liberty, state schools would not be promoting a particular religion to students. At a period in our country when many views promoted in the name of Christianity – such as banning abortions, discriminating against homosexuals, and killing criminal convicts – are controversial, one would think that a Christianity class with an unknown content would be controversial as well. But have there been any recent stories in the news about these “release time” proselytization sessions?
Many people, even residents of Culpeper County, Va., are shocked to learn that public school students in the county are routinely taken out of class to be proselytized with Christianity. “That’s illegal!” they exclaim. If more people knew about this practice, it might receive as much attention as proposals to have a “moment of silence” or post ten ancient orders on a wall.
A Culpeper parent complained to me that when her daughter opted out of Bible class, she was allegedly treated badly and given extra work apparently as a punishment for her decision. Her decision was not surprising, since she was not religious.
I asked the editor of the Culpeper News – where I was a reporter – about it, and he expressed disbelief that such a program existed (as well as a lack of enthusiasm to print anything about it if it did).
I called Kent Willis at the Virginia ACLU, and he said the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld religion-teaching programs as part of public schools under certain conditions. The teaching has to be done off school grounds (one inch off school grounds is good enough). It has to be done during non-instructional hours (whatever those may be). And the kids left behind must not be stigmatized. Willis said in some cases schools have offered candy to kids who will participate and/or have threatened those who don’t. He said often the courses are taught in a trailer or “Bible Bus” that parks at the school property line or – in some cases – on the school grounds.
Willis said he opposes such programs because they “entangle” the schools in “the religious process.” The state is not supposed to promote or inhibit religion, he said, and “It would be very hard to have a program that did not promote religion.”
In addition, “the school is changing the course of its day to set up religious programs. And these are not for all religions, just a majority religion. So, they are discriminatory. Those who practice a minority religion or no religion receive a lesser educational experience.”
Willis said the ACLU favors having schools accommodate religions, for example by letting kids out of schools for their religious holidays. But, “this is more than an accommodation. It is the school rearranging its schedule for classes to promote a majority religion.”
Could this really be happening in Culpeper? I called then-Superintendent of Schools, Larry Brooks. He said there was such a program, officially called Release Time for Religious Education. It came (in a trailer) to each elementary school once per month and was run by an outside group. The man in charge was named Mason Hutcheson.
“The school does not supervise or manage the program,” Brooks said. “Kids are not encouraged or asked to participate.” Brooks said he thought the classes lasted 45 minutes, and that he knew nothing about the curriculum. Students who chose not to participate would “continue with class,” he said. Teachers would “try to do the least important stuff during that time.”
A story was written about the program in the Culpeper Star-Exponent a couple of years ago, Brooks said. He sent a letter to parents, he said, emphasizing the need for class time and suggesting that they think twice about sacrificing it for Bible studies, dental appointments, or chores at home.
Brooks could not describe the program in any detail. “I deliberately try not to know much about it, because it’s right on the edge of entanglement with teaching religion.”
Mason Hutcheson, who could describe the program, expressed reluctance to do so and refused to let me sit in on one of his classes.
Regardless of what is taught in Culpeper’s Bible Bus (be it “Love your enemy and tolerate differences” or “Pray that homosexuals suffer violent deaths”) isn’t it a little disturbing that the superintendent of schools considers it his obligation to remain ignorant of what his students are being taught? Isn’t an arrangement that requires people to take themselves out of the loop unacceptable? Can Brooks’ ignorance excuse him for whatever may be being taught on the Bible Bus?
And can any fair resolution be reached for what to do with the kids who don’t participate? Should they just have their time wasted, or should they be taught material that the other kids will miss? Neither solution seems good, and attempts to finesse it with phrases like “non-instructional time” don’t seem to add anything.
Has the public or any publicly elected body voted to approve this skirting of the First Amendment?
Some of the leading politicians in Virginia 250 years ago – Mason, Madison, Jefferson – came up with the idea of disconnecting religion from government so as not to impose one person’s religion on another. The idea is as important now as it was then. It is important to those who profess some religion other than the most common one in Culpeper. And it is important to those who profess no religion.
Other topics, such as history, biology, math, French, and music, can be taught and simultaneously debated. Consensus is common, and where it is not, disagreement is acceptable. “Believe in Jesus” cannot be made to fit into the same sort of framework as “The Industrial Revolution brought many changes,” or “5+6=11.” Our schools attempt to teach a multiplicity of views of the Industrial Revolution, for example, and encourage students to develop their own views of those events.
Advice to “believe in” something is different because it is not a testable or even explicable assertion. It can’t be debated. There can be no explanation of how one goes about doing it or failing to do it. I can’t observe someone and determine whether he or she “believes in Jesus.” Those who enjoy saying “I believe in Jesus,” should be free to do so. Those who do not should be left alone. And students in public schools should be taught more teachable subjects in the precious hours available – at least until the state tries to put Christianity on the SOLs.
Some may believe that religion does so much good that we are better off teaching a majority religion that discriminates against some students than avoiding religion in public schools all together. I am convinced, on the contrary, that this is a mistake. We ought to teach ethics in schools, and have long been hampered in that area by one good law and one erroneous assumption, namely the First Amendment and the assumption that you can’t have ethics without religion.
For all the good that is done in the name of religion, religious belief often discourages thought. Its many beneficial results are arguably outweighed by results such as faith in the Market and in Marxism, belief in the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality, defense of various destructive “rights” such as the “right to work,” adherence to principles and authorities even when harmful, avoidance of needed medical care, acceptance of the status quo as divinely decreed, faith that people get what they “deserve,” sexism, racism, homophobism, divisiveness, fear of sexual pleasure, a justice system designed around vengeance, and general resistance to intellectual innovation. The opposites of all of these positions can also be found promoted in the name of religion. But these topics can be better debated in an inclusive democratic setting if we avoid trying to tell students that one position or another is divinely commanded – and commanded by a divinity that is part of the culture of only some of the students.