Vermont Really Does Discriminate against Religious Schools

Hot off their Colorado no-gay-weddings baker case, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is at it again. This time, the target is the state of Vermont. ADF alleges that the state discriminates against religious schools. They’re absolutely right, but until now ADF wouldn’t have had a chance. They’re hoping a recent SCOTUS win has put a crack in the wall between church and state wide enough to pull the state of Vermont through. The case comes down to one tricky question: Is a college class the same as tire mulch?

The Simpsons Lemon GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Here’s what we know: Three high-school students from a Catholic school wanted to participate in a dual-enrollment program. In this program, the state pays tuition for students to take college courses for advanced credit. Because they attended a religious private school, they weren’t allowed to participate. According to the Burlington Free Press, Vermont’s Supreme Court ruled in 1999 that state funds could not sponsor students at religious schools.

ADF says such laws are discriminatory. As they complained,

The Dual Enrollment Program statute discriminates against students attending religious high schools not because of the content of college courses they wish to take, but instead because of the religious status of the high schools they attend.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are aware, two SCOTUS cases are most relevant here. Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) established the three-prong “Lemon Test.” This case decided whether or not Rhode Island and Pennsylvania could financially support religious schools.

  1. Any law, SCOTUS ruled, must have a secular purpose. So, for example, a state government COULD pay for children to go to religious schools if the government was mostly interested in the secular goal of providing a basic education for children.
  2. Second, any law’s primary effect must not be one that supports or inhibits religion. If a religious school is part of a church’s religious mission, for example, the government can’t pay for it, because the primary effect would be to support that religious mission.
  3. Trickiest of all, any law must avoid “excessive government entanglement with religion.” But what constitutes “excessive?” IMHO, this is where things get really tricky.

Because last year, SCOTUS ruled that a church could not be excluded from a grant program that had a secular purpose. Trinity Lutheran complained that it was being discriminated against by not being allowed to participate in a program for its playground. The church wanted an equal chance to get government-sponsored tire mulch for its playground.

In its new case, ADF is undeniably absolutely correct in its primary assertion. The state of Vermont really does discriminate against students from religious schools. That discrimination, however, is intentional and seems to be in line with the Lemon Test tradition.

The way I see it, ADF deserves to lose this case. A college class is not the same as tire mulch. To be able to offer college course credit, IMHO, would be a big bonus for any high school. It would promote the mission of the school. If that mission is religious, as it certainly is in the case of Catholic schools, then government money would constitute excessive entanglement. Moreover, funding this important educational experience would mean supporting the Catholic diocese’s religious mission.

But if it helped students in religious schools take college classes, would Vermont’s PRIMARY purpose be to support the Church? Or merely to help all its citizens further their educations? And how would a judge decide what constitutes “excessive” entanglement?

What do you think?


Fundamentalist U & Me: Christian McGuire, Patrick Henry College

Welcome to our latest edition of Fundamentalist U & Me, our occasional series of memory and reflection from people who attended evangelical colleges and universities. [Click here to see all the entries.] The history I recounted in Fundamentalist U only told one part of the complicated story of evangelical higher education. Depending on the person, the school, and the decade, going to an evangelical college has been very different for different people.

This time, we are talking with Christian McGuire, a recent graduate from Patrick Henry College (PHC). Mr. McGuire graduated last month and now works in communications at a think-tank in Arlington, Virginia.

I first met Christian through an article in National Review about odd intellectual fads at conservative evangelical colleges. Christian told me about a more popular attraction at Patrick Henry. Read on to hear more about his experiences:

ILYBYGTH: When and where did you attend your evangelical institutions?

I attended PHC from 2014 to this May.

ILYBYGTH: How did you decide on that school? What were your other options? Did your family pressure you to go to an evangelical college?phc logo

I applied to a variety of other colleges. PHC was the only evangelical school I considered. The others—Georgetown, UChicago, Berkeley, etc.—were all secular. At first, I was fairly unconvinced that I would want to attend PHC, a relative no-name compared to the other schools on my list. After attending, however, I was definitely drawn in by how welcoming all of the students were. I was also impressed by PHC’s law school track record, which fit nicely with my post-graduate plan at the time. PHC students have very high average LSAT scores and punch far above their weight in admission to top law schools, as well as important judicial clerkships. I think it probably helped that my father was also very impressed by PHC; his approval was probably more emotionally significant than I understood at the time. But I was definitely not pressured to make any particular choice.

ILYBYGTH: Do you think your college experience deepened your faith? Do you still feel connected to your alma mater? What was the most powerful religious part of your college experience?

I think my college experience was important to my faith, but definitely not in the way that I (or PHC administrators) expected. I converted to Catholicism in the second semester of my freshman year, after five years of theological study and discussion. That definitely defined the rest of my college experience. Some people—students, professors, administrators—were downright hostile to Catholicism, and I am not the type of personality that can keep a low profile. So I think some of my spiritual development came from adversity. On the other hand, PHC’s best classes generally contained spiritual wisdom that was certainly, and perhaps even especially, applicable to me as a Catholic. Some classes even strengthened my convictions, although I am sure that result was inadvertent.

In one sense, I think I will always be connected to my alma mater. I was lucky to exit college with many strong friendships, and those relationships will always be an indirect link to PHC. On the other hand, I think that after a couple of years of trying to reform what I saw as the faults of PHC, I eventually grew disheartened and gave up. So I am not as emotionally invested in the college as I was a couple of years ago.

The most powerful religious experience did not really occur within the context of my college career—my confirmation into the Church. However, it was attended by many PHC students, and I think it helped jump start a movement towards the Church at PHC.

ILYBYGTH: Would you/did you send your kids to an evangelical college? If so, why, and if not, why not?

I don’t see college selection as the job of the parent, so if I had a child that wanted to go to an evangelical school, I would let them. On the other hand, since I am no longer evangelical and would not raise my children as such, I would be a little surprised at such a decision.

ILYBYGTH: Do you still support your alma mater, financially or otherwise? If so, how and why, and if not, why not?

No, not yet. I might donate in the future, although I would probably focus on donating to specific departments or goals within PHC, rather than the institution as a whole.

ILYBYGTH: If you studied science at your evangelical college, did you feel like it was particularly “Christian?” How so? Did you wonder at the time if it was similar to what you might learn at a non-evangelical college? Have you wondered since?

A preface: I reject the notion that fundamentalist “science” is “Christian” in any meaningful sense of the word. Usually evangelical institutions such as PHC differentiate themselves from mainstream science by rejecting the theory of evolution, but strictly historical interpretations of the first chapters of Genesis don’t represent the only or best approach to the biblical text. St. Augustine, for example, famously dissented from a strongly literal exegesis of these chapters despite predating Darwin by more than a millennia. So I slightly object to the wording of this question.

PHC taught a fundamentalist interpretation of Genesis, which was only really an issue in their biology and “earth science” classes. Humorously, the college was forced to offer earth science instead of biology the year I took the class, because their accreditors discovered that the professor who taught biology was not sufficiently credentialed to teach the subject.

During that class, I occasionally was bothered by the bias present in our discussion of Earth’s origins. I remember one test question asking me to outline the “evolutionist” view on something and contrast it with the “biblical” view of something. However, I think the professor made a real effort to educate us on what we would be taught at a secular institution overall.

ILYBYGTH: Was your social life at your evangelical college similar to the college stereotype (partying, “hooking up,” drinking, etc.) we see in mainstream media? If not, how was it different? Do you think your social experience would have been much different if you went to a secular institution?

PHC social life was very different from that stereotype. The college enforces fairly strict standards of conduct that ban alcohol consumption, enforce curfews for Freshmen and Sophomores, and prohibit sex outside of marriage. Of course, not everyone follows those rules. But overall, social life is still much tamer at PHC than elsewhere, even at other Christian colleges that I know of. I think part of the reason is that homeschooled backgrounds (PHC is overwhelmingly composed of former homeschoolers) tend to encourage a deference to authority.

ILYBYGTH: In your experience, was the “Christian” part of your college experience a prominent part? In other words, would someone from a secular college notice differences right away if she or he visited your school?

Incredibly so. Everything that PHC does is very consciously evangelical: mandatory chapels are held every single week day, professors are evaluated at the end of every semester on how well they integrated a biblical worldview into their class, prayer often opens classes. And this isn’t just a focus that comes from the administration—students are very invested in their faith as well, on average. Debates about theology are common in the dining hall, and social interactions on campus often include prayer, spiritual encouragement, or some other form of religious flavoring. PHC, I think, was always afraid of going the way of more prominent Christian institutions—starting out staunchly Christian, but ending up only nominally religious. A lot of safeguards were built into the school’s founding documents. For example, the school cannot change its Statement of Faith without losing its land deeds.

ILYBYGTH: Did you feel political pressure at school? That is, did you feel like the school environment tipped in a politically conservative direction? Did you feel free to form your own opinions about the news? Were you encouraged or discouraged from doing so?

The school’s environment was unquestionably conservative. The school’s founder and first president, Michael Farris, was a conservative legal activist who currently heads the Alliance Defending Freedom, one of the most prominent conservative legal groups in the nation.

At the same time, PHC was unblinkingly devoted to exploring all sides of most debates. While the majority of students were conservative, it was completely socially acceptable to make arguments that went against normal conservative positions on economics or foreign policy. I would say that there was only a real taboo on dissenting from pro-life political positions, and maybe a half-taboo on dissenting from the conservative consensus against gay marriage.

ILYBYGTH: What do you think the future holds for evangelical higher education? What are the main problems looming for evangelical schools? What advantages do they have over other types of colleges?

I think that evangelical schools, and PHC in particular, are up against more cultural headwinds than ever before. If you read conservative Christian commentators, you will discover that a lot of them are still trying to forge a post-Trump consensus on what the future of political Christianity is. Some want to continue the political alliance they have made with the Republican party, but many Christian intellectuals and young evangelicals are disgusted by that prospect. As a result, colleges like PHC that focus on “leading the nation and shaping the culture” (one of PHC’s slogans) are at a crossroads. Less political evangelical colleges won’t have quite the same burden, but they still have to deal with increasing secularization among young people.

However, I think that as conservative Christianity becomes more and more at odds with the culture writ large, there will be an additional emphasis on forming explicitly Christian bonds. Those who remain devout in their faith are probably more likely to want to attend Christian schools where they can deepen their intellectual understanding of the faith. A lot of Christians are wondering in the Trump era, “where do we go from here?” Maybe evangelical colleges can be part of that answer.

Thanks, Christian!

Did YOU attend an evangelical college? Are you willing to share your experiences? If so, please get in touch with the ILYBYGTH editorial desk at

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

Hard to believe another week has come and gone so fast. It has been difficult to keep tabs on all the ILYBYGTH-related stories out there. Here are a few that SAGLRROILYGYBTH might find interesting:

If you were the principal, what would YOU do? This South Carolina teacher got suspended for having her kids defend the Klan. HT: MM

Five Wheaton College students face charges in a violent hazing assault, as reported by the Chicago Tribune.

Ben Shapiro on the problem with college protesters, the “idol of self.”

What should a science booster-club leader do when a parent questions his religious beliefs? One story from the National Center for Science Education.

Did the right wing come from outer space? David Auerbach looks at the sci-fi roots of radical conservatism.Bart reading bible

“More…than just big hair and money.” An interview with John Wigger, author of a new history of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

What are historians saying about Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s new Vietnam War documentary? At HNN, Professor Bob Buzzanco offers a few criticisms.

What do standardized history tests tell us? Not so much, argues Sam Wineburg and his colleagues.

Why so few conservative professors? George Yancey says there’s more to it than self-selection.

A portrait of a culture-war powerhouse: Daniel Bennett on the history of conservative legal activists Alliance Defending Freedom.

Want to Understand the Culture Wars? Start Here…

Even if you don’t share ILYBYGTH’s obsessive fascination with America’s culture wars, you probably noticed a few of its recent battles. Can a baker refuse to make a cake for a same-sex wedding? Can cheerleaders at a public school cheer for Jesus? As a recent article reminds us, if we really want to understand these fights, we need to look beyond Bibles and bakeshops. The behind-the-scenes power of legal activist groups has always fueled these culture-war battles.


The culture-war trenches. But not the culture-war Pentagon.

It has been this way from the very beginning. Back in 1925, the furious creation/evolution fight in Tennessee would never have happened if it weren’t for the influence of the American Civil Liberties Union. Sure, proto-creationists had passed a sweeping anti-evolution law. And, yes, plenty of people had noticed the goings-on in state legislatures. (I flesh out the full context in my book about educational conservatism.) But only when the ACLU offered to sponsor a legal challenge did the Scopes Trial actually gain momentum.

In our century it has been the same. SAGLRROILYBYGTH remember the case from Kountze, Texas. Starting in 2012, cheerleaders at the high school began displaying huge banners with Christian Biblical messages. It’s easy to see how such outright religious preaching at a public school might ruffle feathers. But it was only when the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation intervened that the case became a national sensation.

This sort of legal activism has not been limited to the liberal side. As Daniel Bennett describes at Religion & Politics, the conservative religious Alliance Defending Freedom has scored impressive legal victories over the past decade. As Professor Bennett notes, ADF has repeatedly made its case at the US Supreme Court, in favor of the right of bakers to discriminate against homosexual weddings or in favor of the right of religious schools to receive tax money.

adf logo

A culture-war army of well-dressed lawyers…

These days, as Bennett describes, ADF employs forty full-time attorneys, sniffing out ways to project the power of conservative religious values in the public square. ADF takes in tens of millions of dollars per year to stake out the legal rights of conservative Christians in a secularizing society.

Headlines talk about creationism, public prayer, and transgender issues. Time and time again, it has been the Alliance Defending Freedom who has pushed these cases into the limelight, defending the rights of radical creationist scientists, anti-transgender pastors, or Christian prayer leaders at public town meetings.

Cheerleaders and bakers matter, of course. In order to understand how these cases move from local controversies to national symbols, though, we need to recognize the influence of legal activist groups.

Give Creationists Government Rocks!

If you listened only to his press releases, you’d think creationist impresario Ken Ham was the most persecuted man in America, standing boldly in the path of “brainwashed” government leaders set on ruthless atheist indoctrination of America’s creationist kids. Mostly, his puffed-up rhetoric is silly and overblown. In one recent case, though, Ham and his colleagues are exactly right. There is no reason why they should not be allowed to engage in their peculiar science. More specifically, there is no reason why the government should not give them equal access to research materials.

Here’s what we know: Andrew Snelling, a young-earth creationist researcher affiliated with Ham’s Answers in Genesis organization, has been denied permission to remove rocks from the Grand Canyon. Yesterday, the conservative activist organization Alliance Defending Freedom has filed suit on Snelling’s behalf in federal court.andrew snelling grand canyon

The suit alleges that the Department of the Interior unfairly discriminated against Snelling for his creationist religious beliefs. Snelling had hoped to remove about thirty pounds of rocks from the Grand Canyon. He wanted to ship them back to his lab in Kentucky for research purposes.

According to news accounts, Dept. of Interior officials sent his application to mainstream scientists for review. One called Snelling’s creationist research “outlandish.” Another rejected the application due to its “dead-end creationist material.”

Let me be clear: I agree that the science pursued by Snelling is outlandish. It might not be “dead-end,” but it is “zombie science.”

But that does not mean that Dr. Snelling does not have every right to engage in his scientific pursuits. The reviewers in this case seem to have a woefully skewed idea of the proper role of government. According to one report, at least, one of the academic reviewers told the Department of Interior this case was

not a question of fairness to all points of view, but rather adherence to your narrowly defined institution mandate predicated in part on the fact that ours is a secular society as per our constitution.

Of course, that’s not what our First Amendment demands at all. Its two clauses—the establishment clause and the free exercise clause—never demand or even suggest a government role in creating a secular society. Rather, the federal government may not establish a religion. Nor may it inhibit free exercise of religion.

In this case, the government has no mandate to decide if Snelling’s work is secular enough to qualify. Neither the government nor anyone else can say with a straight face that Snelling is not engaged in scientific research. It might be kooky. It might be zombie. But “science” is not subject to a simple demarcation. It’s not a simple matter for anyone to rule something out of the realm of science. It is certainly more than government regulators can hope to do.

What should the Department of Interior do? Let Snelling sample the rocks! Give him equal access to publicly available research materials!

None of this means that the Department of the Interior can never limit the use of Grand Canyon rocks. Obviously, if some scheming entrepreneur wanted to take rocks out of the canyon to sell, he should be denied. Or, if the rocks were extremely rare and fragile—if removing them would harm the canyon—permission should be denied.

Plus, at times the federal government needs to make hard decisions about good science. When there’s federal money on the table, for instance, the government has a duty to choose the best, most promising proposals to fund. So, in this case, if Dr. Snelling was applying for a National Science Foundation grant to pay for his research, it would make perfect sense for reviewers to weigh in on the likely “dead-end” nature of his proposed research.

Similarly, if kids and public education are involved, the government has a similar duty to discern. As Harvey Siegel and I argue in our recent book Teaching Evolution in a Creation Nation, just because we can’t clearly define away creation science as non-science, we can still conclude that it is worse science. We don’t need to include every scientific idea in public-school science classes, only the good ones. And by any reasonable measure Dr. Snelling’s young-earth science is not as good as mainstream evolutionary science.

In this particular case, however, there is no government money on the table. There is no implied endorsement of religious ideas. There are no public schools involved.

So we say: Let Snelling work! Let him study rocks!

Of course, the folks at Answers In Genesis might not like some of the results. If they call for scientific resources to be open for all, they should also open up their one-of-a-kind fossil resources to outside researchers.

The Kids Aren’t Alright…with Transgender

My Fellow Progressives: What if time isn’t on our side? We tend to think that each new generation will get cooler, more tolerant, more progressive. But what about those stubborn conservative kids who consistently disprove our assumptions? A new student protest in Missouri shows once again that young people are not somehow automatically progressive.

Who is the future here?

Who is the future here?

Academic historians learnt this lesson the hard way. Beginning in the 1930s, liberal academics assumed that the fundamentalists of the 1920s had melted away in the glare of modernity. In their liberal imaginations, historians such as Norman Furniss explained that fundamentalism had died away, a vestige of an older, stupider time.

For many liberal historians, the fact that they no longer saw fundamentalists on their campuses or in the headlines of their newspapers proved their case. It backed up their assumptions that the modern world would squeeze out people who embraced a decidedly old-fashioned way of reading the Bible.

Of course, fundamentalists hadn’t died away after the 1920s. Beginning in the later 1950s, evangelists such as Billy Graham brought the fundamentalist tradition back to America’s headlines and center stage. It took a new generation of historians, many of them raised in fundamentalist families, to explain what had happened. Writers such as Ernest Sandeen, George Marsden, and Joel Carpenter demonstrated the continuing strength and vitality of American fundamentalism.

Protestant fundamentalism, these historians showed, was a thoroughly modern phenomenon. In the face of progressive assumptions that people would naturally become more secular and more morally sophisticated, lots of Americans actually became more religious and more firmly moored in Biblical morality.

Progressives today share a similar short-sighted demographic hangover. Many of us, even those of us too young to have lived through the social movements of the 1960s, remember the vibe of youth power. As Andrew Hartman has argued so eloquently in his new book, the ideas of the 1960s fueled much of the later culture war vitriol. In the face of much evidence to the contrary, it was often assumed by 1960s culture warriors (and their successors) that youth was somehow naturally progressive.

Not your father's GOP...

Not your father’s GOP…

To be fair, my fellow progressives aren’t entirely wrong. We tend to assume that young people will be less anti-gay, less racist, less conservative, and we can point to good poll data to back it up. As Pew reported last year,

in addition to the [Millennial] generation’s Democratic tendency, Millennials who identify with the GOP are also less conservative than Republicans in other generations: Among the roughly one-third of Millennials who affiliate with or lean Republican, just 31% have a mix of political values that are right-of-center, while about half (51%) take a mix of liberal and conservative positions and 18% have consistently or mostly liberal views. Among all Republicans and Republican leaners, 53% have conservative views; in the two oldest generations, Silents and Boomers, about two-thirds are consistently or mostly conservative.

But there’s a big problem embedded in these kids of poll data. Though many young people tend toward more liberal views, there are still enormous percentages of people who buck the trend. The recent protest in Missouri can illustrate the ways young people can and will embrace socially conservative ideas.

In that case, a transgender high-school senior, Lila Perry, had been allowed to use the girls’ bathroom. Students walked out in protest. The students and their parents, supported by outside groups such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, tend to consider Lila to be still male, in spite of her identification as female. As one activist parent put it, his daughters encountered an “intact male” in the locker room.

In spite of what we might expect, we don’t see in this case progressive young people fighting against the bureaucracy. Instead, the bureaucracy in this case moved quickly to establish a policy protecting the rights of transgender students. In reply, conservative students insisted on the rights of “real” girls to be protected from such students.

If history is any guide, as more young people become progressive, the conservative holdouts will become more firmly attached to their conservative principles. Conservative young people will become more likely to take action. Protests like the one at Hillsboro High School will become more common.

Who’s the HERO in Houston?

Turn ‘em over. That’s the order from Houston’s mayor to the city’s conservative pastors. According to Fox News, Houston Mayor Annise Parker has subpoenaed sermons from pastors. She wants to see if those folks are bashing homosexuality. Though she has backtracked recently, Mayor Parker accuses conservatives of bigotry and anti-gay hate speech. Most important, legally, she accuses them of using their pulpits for political agitation. Not surprisingly, conservatives have reacted with furious indignation.

Parker puts political pressure on pastors.

Parker puts political pressure on pastors.

At issue here is a new anti-discrimination ordinance in Houston, the Houston Equal-Rights Ordinance (HERO). Back in August, conservatives submitted a petition challenging the new rule. Among other things, conservatives worried, the rule would have forced Houstonians to allow women in men’s bathrooms, and vice versa. The city threw out the petition, claiming a lack of legitimate signatures. In response, conservatives sued.

The city ordered conservative pastors to turn over their sermons as part of the lawsuit. According to World Magazine, Mayor Parker tweeted her reasons for ordering the subpoena: “If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game. Were instructions given on filling out anti-HERO petition?”

Conservatives suspect more cynical motives. The activist group Alliance Defending Freedom jumped in to defend the pastors. The ADF accuses the mayor of quashing any political dissent. In a brief filed to fight the subpoenas, the ADF claimed,

The message is clear: oppose the decisions of city government, and drown in unwarranted, burdensome discovery requests. . . . These requests, if allowed, will have a chilling effect on future citizens who might consider circulating referendum petitions because they are dissatisfied with ordinances passed by the City Council.

Writing in Forbes Magazine, conservative intellectual David Davenport agreed. Davenport, former president of Pepperdine University, called Mayor Parker’s action “outrageous. . . . legal intimidation.”

Even the mayor herself might agree. According to World Magazine, the mayor’s office has backed off its initial subpoena claims. A city spokeswoman said the mayor now planned to “narrow the scope” of the subpoenas.

Writing from the sidelines, I can’t help but wonder if conservatives have this one right. I personally support rules such as HERO, and I think more and more Americans are with me on this one. To the chagrin of conservatives, religious opposition to equal rights for homosexuals is increasingly seen as bigotry and hatred. But that does not mean that Americans will stand by as religious speakers are hounded by aggressive and unconstitutional demands from a city government.

Whatever the legal merits of the case, headlines about subpoenaing sermons make the mayor look bad. It changes the culture-war discussion. Instead of framing Mayor Parker as the brave defender of equal rights for all, this kind of move makes her look like an anti-religion crusader. No matter how much Americans might be shifting towards acceptance of homosexuality, we still love our churches, and we love our freedom.

The Supreme Court Just Kicked God Back Into America

Does America have a religion?  Many religious conservatives insist that the United States has always been a Christian country.  Yet some religious folks complain that the Supreme Court has “kicked God out of public schools” and public meetings.  In a ruling today, a slim majority on the US Supreme Court ruled that public meetings CAN be opened with a prayer, even if those prayers tend to represent mostly Christianity.

ILYBYGTH readers may remember this case from my upstate New York neighborhood.  The town of Greece held prayers before its meetings.  Though the town tried to open the prayers to a wide group of religions, complainants argued that the prayers tended to cluster around Christianity.  As SCOTUS had ruled in a 1983 ruling, Marsh v. Chambers, public meetings could constitutionally open with a prayer, as long as those prayers did not favor any one religion over another.

In the case of Greece v. Galloway, today’s ruling allows towns to continue with public prayers, even if those prayers tip toward Christianity.  And even if those prayers use explicitly Christian language.  As Adam Liptak noted in the New York Times, Justice Kennedy’s majority decision insisted that public prayers could even invoke sectarian ideas, such as the specific invocation of a sacrificial Jesus.  As Liptak summarized Kennedy’s decision, “it would be perilous for courts to decide when those prayers crossed a constitutional line and became impermissibly sectarian.”

According to Lyle Denniston on the SCOTUS blog, today’s ruling hinged on a distinction between “coercion” and “endorsement” as a rule of thumb in public-meeting prayers.  Such prayers, the majority held, are not constitutional if they imply coercion.  If non-believers are made to feel less welcome, for instance, coercion might be at play.  “Endorsement” is a lower hurdle.  Dissenting justices felt that any prayer in which government looked to be endorsing any religion must be unconstitutional.  Today’s majority ruling implies that “coercion” might become the new standard in judging questions of public religiosity.

As I’ve argued in the Journal of Religious History about the landmark school-prayer rulings Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington v. Schempp (1963), the status of public prayer has long served a crucial symbolic role in evangelical understandings of their role in American culture.  There is a tension at the heart of evangelicalism.  Believers in this tradition can consider themselves both the definition of true Americanism and a beleaguered minority in a sinful or secular land.  When the Supreme Court rules for or against public prayer, evangelicals tend to respond forcefully.

Will conservative religious folks celebrate this case as the time that the Supreme Court kicked God back INTO American public life?  The Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based group that defended the town’s prayer practice, calls today’s ruling an “Answered Prayer.”  As they put it, today’s ruling

Preserves the public prayer tradition that began with our founding.

Protects the freedom of community volunteers to pray according to their faith in a public setting, without censorship

Defends the prayer giver’s freedom of speech over an “offended” person’s demands for censorship

Writing in the evangelical WORLD magazine, Emily Belz took a more circumspect tone.  “The Greece case,” Belz opined,

doesn’t have huge immediate implications but puts the high court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence on friendlier ground toward religion in the public square.

In the pages of the evangelical flagship publication Christianity Today, Ted Olsen insisted that SCOTUS got it right.  But not because this decision endorses the notion of the US as a Christian nation.  Rather, Olsen argued that sectarian prayers—whether to Jesus or to Apollo—represent the real faiths of real Americans.  “For Christians,” Olsen wrote,

such invocations let us bear witness to our own submission, to our gratefulness for God’s provision on a community level, and to our need for his wisdom and guidance. We needn’t “proselytize or disparage” in these prayers, just as we don’t do so in our prayers before meals, or with our families before bed. And we need not protest pagan prayers in our city council meetings any more than we protest them at our pagan neighbor’s apartment. Instead, we should see their prayers as a triumph of religious freedom (and as reminders to compassionately share the gospel with them).

Does it turn public meetings into Christian-fests if they are opened with prayers that specify the centrality of “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross?”  Or is it okay to have prayers, as long as everyone is invited to have a chance to lead them?  The Supreme Court says yes.


We’re All a Bunch of Losers

Both sides in our continuing culture wars assume they are losing.  Why?

We can see some recent examples from smart people on either side of the creation/evolution controversy right here on ILYBYGTH.

Recently, I argued that evolution was winning.  Winning big.

Some of the responses to that argument show that both sides are reluctant to admit they might not be losers in this fight.

For example, Tim, a self-identified homeschooling creationist, agreed that evolution was winning.  As he put it,

Creationists do not want creationism in public schools because it would taught incorrectly. Most pastors do not know how to accurately teach creationism, how in the world would we expect the average person to be able to? Does this in some sense prove evolution is winning? Sure, I could give you that. But we already know it will.

On the other hand, Bunto Skiffler took me to task for dangerously naïve optimism.  As he argued,

I believe General Westmoreland said something similar about our involvement in Vietnam before the start of 1968.

a person who lives in the fiefdom of Texas right now

Why doesn’t anyone want to admit they might be on the winning side?

I think the answer may lie with our very different definitions of winning and losing.

For evolution-promoters like me, creationists seem to be winning when they can impose any sort of non-evolutionary science in public-school classrooms.  Or even in private-school classrooms.  The fact that nearly half of American adults seem to agree with a strongly creationist idea about the origins of humanity makes it seem to folks like me that creationism is winning.

On the other hand, creationists might hearken back to a time when America’s public schools evinced a recognizably Protestant religiosity.  Back when kids in public schools read the Bible—the Protestant Bible, that is—prayed with their teachers, and generally learned that God wanted them to be better students.  Seen from that perspective, today’s public schools with their goals of pluralism and secularism might make it look as if evolution has won the field.

We must also consider the fact that pundits on both sides emphasize their own victimhood.  Reading the produce of Americans United or the Freedom from Religion Foundation makes American public schools seem under siege by powerful religious zealots.  On the other side, browsers of literature from the Alliance Defending Freedom or the Family Research Council might be forgiven for concluding that fire-breathing secularists crush any attempt at including healthy religion in public schools.

In other words, being a loser is attractive.

Each side emphasizes their own loser status in order to mobilize followers.  Evolution activists won’t be motivated to get off the couch if they are told that evolution is winning.  Creationist activists, similarly, might relax if they are told they need only be patient.

We’re all a bunch of losers in this fight.  Except, of course, we’re not.

I’ll say it again: Seen from an historical perspective, evolution education is winning.  If you don’t believe it, read my book.  Creation/evolution struggles have only deadlocked in the past thirty years or so.  In the 1920s, evolution barely made a dent.  Now evolution promoters feel put out if creationists have any influence at all.

Evolution is winning.  I’m not afraid to say it: I’m a winner.


They’re Coming for your Children

Beware!  The State is coming for your children.

That is the reminder recently from some conservative Christian commentators.

As we’ve noted here at ILYBYGTH, the struggle for control over children between parents and the state has a long and bitter history.

The cover of Sam Blumenfeld's 1981 Is Public Education Necessary depicted a teen being forcibly abducted from his home by agents of the State.  His crime?  Learning outside of government schools.

The cover of Sam Blumenfeld’s 1981 Is Public Education Necessary depicted a teen being forcibly abducted from his home by agents of the State. His crime? Learning outside of government schools.

Recent warnings have come from Elizabeth Mitchell of Answers in Genesis and Roger Kiska of the evangelical Alliance Defending Freedom.

The lesson from Germany is stark, both insist.  In that country, homeschooling parents have had their children taken away by the government.

Mitchell tells the story of the Wunderlich family.  By German law, the four children of this homeschooling family were arrested for violating a school-truancy law.  Mitchell warns that such threats are not limited to Germany.  “Those of us,” she insists,

who maintain that the Word of the Creator of the universe can be trusted from the very first verse work to provide answers to equip children and adults to understand science as well as the suffering in the world in the light of God’s Word. At the same time, we as Bible-believing Christians must not take for granted our freedom to speak the truth. . . .  we need to remain vigilant to guard against encroachments that chisel away at the freedoms we have in our own country.

Writing for the Alliance Defending Freedom, Kiska similarly warns, “today, the suppression of parental rights to teach and influence their own children isn’t restricted to overtly fascist regimes.”  In Sweden and Germany, “a land once shrouded under the Nazi flag,” homeschooling families have been attacked by government forces.  Such threats are not limited to Europe, Kiska insists.  He asks,

So, could Europe’s degree of intolerance and crackdown on homeschooling reach American shores anytime soon? It all depends on how vigilant we are in opposing decisions like the one in New Hampshire—and it’s precisely why ADF is fighting to protect parental rights in that case and abroad so that a very nasty cancer is not allowed to grow.

For outsiders like me, this anti-state rhetoric can seem strangely hyperbolic, even a “paranoid style.”  But dismissing these fears as mere social neurosis misses the point.  For many Americans of a conservative bent, the dangers of government aggression are of primary concern.  So, for instance, when pundits such as Allison Benedikt make an aggressive case for public education, many conservative writers express alarm.

This is more than just a paranoid style.  This is a thorough-going distrust of government power.  This distrust lies at the heart of conservative thinking in the United States.  Many conservatives still relish the pithy expression of this central idea by Ronald Reagan.  As Reagan put it, the most terrifying words in the English language are these: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

For some conservatives, that government “help” might include the forcible abduction of children.  Folks like me might scoff at the extreme paranoia of such ideas, but we will be wise to understand that such warnings resonate with large numbers of Americans.