Think of the Children, Avoid the Issue

People who run afoul of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause say the strangest things in defense of their violations. Instead of admitting their error, they try to rationalize it, often painting defenders of the Constitution as the real wrongdoers. I know no one likes to admit they are wrong, but knee-jerk responses inhibit productive civic discourse by confusing the issue and obscuring common ground.

Take, for example, recent events at Denver area charter school SkyView Academy as reported by Ryan Parker in The Denver Post. The school ceased participation in a Christian charity program that sent gifts to needy children around the world. The gift boxes included an evangelical booklet with a conversion pledge for the recipients to sign. The American Humanist Association (AHA) has been sending letters to schools participating in the program informing them of the unconstitutional nature of its participation and warning that continued participation could result in a law suit.

As an AHA letter to another school involved in the program explains [pdf], government affiliated schools cannot legally participate in any activity that endorses a religious viewpoint. Court rulings are consistent on this question. Instead of simply stopping their unconstitutional actions and redirecting students’ charitable activities toward a constitutional end, program supporters at SkyView have gone on the attack.

The school’s board president Lorrie Grove said, “It was hard to believe we were receiving a threatening letter child statue with blank expression, blue shirt, gray skirt standing on concretebased on the good intentions of our students” and “It’s disappointing some meaningful efforts of our students were misinterpreted.”

Grove’s statements pose a couple of problems. The phrase “threatening letter” seems better suited to describe the words of stalker than a civil liberties organization warning of justified legal action if the school continued to violate the Constitution. This pejorative exaggeration, even as it tries to vilify the AHA, isn’t the most troubling aspect of Grove’s statements. Her refusal to engage the substance of the AHA’s legal argument poses a far greater danger of derailing the conversation.

The AHA did not object to “the good intentions” of students. Being a Humanist organization, I suspect the AHA would applaud student efforts to foster a spirit of community service. The AHA does object to actions that violate the Constitution. If Grove believes the AHA’s constitutional argument is wrong, then she should explain why. She shouldn’t spuriously claim that the AHA objects to students’ desire to help the less fortunate. Nor were the “efforts of … students … misinterpreted” and the AHA is not “bullying” as parent Kendal Unruh says. The AHA’s argument was never about student intentions or efforts but the school’s unconstitutional participation in evangelism.

If students wish to continue the work outside of school, they are free to do so. A wealth of opportunities exists for students to do constitutional charity work within the school as well. Both of these positive outcomes, however, can be lost amid rhetorical machinations like Grove’s that do more to encourage contention than resolve disagreement through dialogue.

Image credit: lydia_shiningbrightly | CC BY 2.0

About Todd Battistelli

Rhetorician and writing teacher. Keeping an eye on the state of civic discourse.
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