Friday, December 01, 2006

Backpacks, Flyers -- What's Going On?

I have felt sort of uninformed about the "backpack" controversy, and so I did a little reading, and thought I'd share some of what I learned with you.

First of all ... what's up with the word fly? Like, I heard somebody once talking about a baseball game, and they said that the batter "flew out" to left field. I was thinking, wow, those are some pretty good steroids. Uh, did you mean he flied out to left? And how can that be -- flied? As the past tense of fly?

And now, I just don't know if the papers the school sticks in a kid's backpack should be referred to as "flyers" or "fliers." I'll stick with flyers, I guess. But it's a toss-up. (These are not guys who pilot airplanes, nor are they Japanese chickens.)

Here's what happened, as far as I can piece it together at this point. You have to dig through a lot of news stories to put this together, and so if I got something wrong, please correct me in the comments.

Back in 2004, the Good News Club, an after-school Bible-study group, wanted to distribute flyers announcing their meetings, and MCPS decided not to let them, saying that as a government institution they should not participate in proselytizing for any religion.

See, the Constitution contains a near-paradox, or at least a very fine tightrope, in terms of the government's treatment of religion. Decisions are balanced between two clauses. The Establishment Clause says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion". This is generally interpreted to mean that state and federal governments should not establish or promote any religion, and the result is the commonly-cited "separation of church and state."

On the other hand, the Free Exercise Clause says, "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This puts government in a bind. Allowing the use of government facilities for the promotion of religion violates the Establishment Clause, forbidding it violates the Free Exercise Clause.

This is why lawyers live in such nice houses.

MCPS did not let the Good News Club pass out their flyers, and the club sued. In 2004 the court ruled that MCPS' practice did amount to viewpoint discrimination, and that handing out the flyers did not violate the Establishment Clause. The school board then voted seven to one to restrict distribution to flyers produced by parent-teacher associations, government agencies, student groups, day-care centers, nonprofit sports leagues and the school system. This meant that religious groups could not distribute their stuff, nor could the Boy Scouts and other community organizations.

The Good News Club sued again. The district court originally dismissed the case, but the 4th circuit court of appeals overturned the dismissal and sent the case back to the district court. In the meantime, because MCPS had rewritten their policy on access, the district court again dismissed the case, ruling that the new policy mooted the free speech concerns of the Good News Club. This was appealed again and ended up back in the Fourth Circuit court, which this past summer, again, overruled the dismissal.

These things being what they are, the court's ruling is rather long-winded and I'm not going to copy it all on the blog. You can read the whole thing HERE.

The issue has to do in part with what constitutes a "public forum." While the government must maintain veiwpoint neutrality in a public forum, it is not required to in a non-public forum, such as a classroom. MCPS had rewritten its policies with the intention of establishing the latter, but the Fourth Circuit didn't agree:
To recapitulate, in a traditional public forum the government may only establish content-neutral "time, place, and manner" restrictions or content-based rules that are "necessary to achieve a compelling state interest" and are "narrowly drawn to achieve that interest." A designated public forum is "subject to the same limitations as that governing a traditional public forum." In a limited public forum, however, the government may restrict access to "certain groups" or to "discussion of certain topics," subject to two limitations: the government restrictions must be both reasonable and viewpoint neutral. Finally, in a nonpublic forum the government may employ a "selective access" policy in which "individual nonministerial judgments" govern forum participation, again subject to the same two limitations: the policy must be reasonable and viewpoint neutral.

I admit, a lot of this is Greek to me, but there's a nice readable account of all this legal stuff HERE, in the Tennessee School Law Quarterly.

OK, so this has been kicked back and forth, MCPS tried to regulate the use of flyers (and other things as well, back-to-school nights and things), and the court still ruled against them.

The school district's response this year was to issue a policy that organizations can send materials home with students four times a year, corresponding to the start of the year and the ends of the first, second, and third marking periods. Schools determine their own exact dates, but they must be near those times.

A decision tree was worked up and is posted on the Internet HERE. Decisions are based on whether the materials:
  • Come from a group that is allowed access at any time (MCPS, government, PTA, etc.)
  • Display a disclaimer message
  • Violate any laws or MCPS policies, and
  • Are from a non-profit group

Now that the policy is in place, of course it can be exploited by groups who the schools shouldn't have anything to do with. For instance, Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays (PFOX-GAG ... no, they call it "PFOX") got their literature in the kids' backpacks right away. PFOX exists to stuff gay people right back into the closet, the schools would never allow this in a classroom, but because PFOX is a non-profit organization and meets other criteria on the decision chart, the schools are essentially helpless. Your kids are going to be given this stuff, probably, four times a year.

It seems obvious to me that this situation cannot continue. Whether you hate PFOX or love them, you can easily see that the Klan, NAMBLA, or any other reprehensible group that qualifies as a non-profit can send flyers home with schoolchildren four times a year. The schools cannot exercise any control over what is introduced to the kids' backpacks.

It just can't go anywhere good.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"you can easily see that the Klan, NAMBLA, or any other reprehensible group that qualifies as a non-profit can send flyers home"

I can see how those groups might try but I doubt they will succeed. I can think of many ways to counter them.

The whole thing has become a problem because of two things:

1. MCPS did not do this originally because of some constitutional concern. If they did, they would have simply complied with the court order when they lost the first case, finding themselves off the hook. Instead they tried to find another way to play a part in shielding kids from hearing any religious ideas because they believe they should actively promote the secularization of our society instead oof maintaining a neutral stance. Their inappropriate attempt to secularize students is what caused this problem that you decry.

2. Lunatic fringe gay advocacy groups attempts to equalize racial identity and the desire to engage in certain types of sexual activity has a similar potential to hurt the civil rights movement.

December 02, 2006 2:33 PM  
Blogger Priya Lynn said...

Anonymous, it is the natural state of children to be non-religious, we all start out that way and many are unfortunately later religionized.

The need to be free from discrimination on racial grounds is the same as the need to be free from discrimination on the grounds of who we love. Freedom from punishment when one is hurting no one is fundamental to civil rights.

December 04, 2006 11:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Anonymous, it is the natural state of children to be non-religious, we all start out that way and many are unfortunately later religionized."

Just not true. Religious belief is so intrinsic that scientists have postulated a "God gene".

"The need to be free from discrimination on racial grounds is the same as the need to be free from discrimination on the grounds of who we love."

"Who we love" is a euphemism. In any case, the analogy is offensive to racial minorities.

"Freedom from punishment when one is hurting no one is fundamental to civil rights."

No one has a right to have schools teach that the lusts they feel are alright. People can make up their own mind about that without governmental direction.

December 04, 2006 4:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Geneticist claims to have found 'God gene' in humans

By Elizabeth Day

LONDON — An American molecular geneticist has concluded after comparing more than 2,000 DNA samples that a person's capacity to believe in God is linked to brain chemicals.

His findings have been criticized by leading clerics, who challenge the existence of a "God gene" and say the research undermines a fundamental tenet of faith — that spiritual enlightenment is achieved through divine transformation rather than the brain's electrical impulses.

Dean Hamer, the director of the Gene Structure and Regulation Unit at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, asked volunteers 226 questions in order to determine how spiritually connected they felt to the universe.

The higher their score, the greater the person's ability to believe in a greater spiritual force and, Mr. Hamer found, the more likely they were to share the gene VMAT2.

Studies on twins showed that those with this gene, a vesicular monoamine transporter that regulates the flow of mood-altering chemicals in the brain, were more likely to develop a spiritual belief.

Growing up in a religious environment was said to have little effect on belief.

Mr. Hamer, who in 1993 claimed to have identified a DNA sequence linked to male homosexuality, said the existence of the "God gene" explained why some people had more aptitude for spirituality than others.

"Buddha, Muhammad and Jesus all shared a series of mystical experiences or alterations in consciousness and thus probably carried the gene," he said. "This means that the tendency to be spiritual is part of genetic makeup. This is not a thing that is strictly handed down from parents to children. It could skip a generation. It's like intelligence."

His findings, published in a book, "The God Gene: How Faith Is Hard-Wired Into Our Genes," are being greeted skeptically by many in the religious establishment.

The Rev. John Polkinghorne, a fellow of the Royal Society and a canon theologian at Liverpool Cathedral, said: "The idea of a God gene goes against all my personal theological convictions. You can't cut faith down to the lowest common denominator of genetic survival. It shows the poverty of reductionist thinking."

The Rev. Walter Houston, the chaplain of Mansfield College, Oxford, and a fellow in theology, said: "Religious belief is not just related to a person's constitution. It's related to society, tradition, character — everything's involved. Having a gene that could do all that seems pretty unlikely to me."

Mr. Hamer insisted, however, that his research was not antithetical to a belief in God.

"Religious believers can point to the existence of God genes as one more sign of the Creator's ingenuity — a clever way to help humans acknowledge and embrace a divine presence," he said.

December 04, 2006 11:05 PM  
Blogger Priya Lynn said...

Anonymous, who we love is not a euphemism, its central to our lives. Many ratial minorities are in agreement that discrimination based on who we love is just as bad as discrimination based on race. Ask Martin Luther King's wife Corretta. Those that claim offense are simply trying to justify their bigotry.

You may sum up your opposite sex attractions as lust but I experience love.

December 05, 2006 3:54 PM  
Blogger Priya Lynn said...

There is no gene that results in believing in Christianity versus Islam, or Juddaism. These beliefs are entirely learned. No one comes to these religions without being taught them.

December 05, 2006 4:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


This statement:

"it is the natural state of children to be non-religious, we all start out that way and many are unfortunately later religionized"

is complete malarkey. You realize that, don't you?

December 06, 2006 4:47 PM  
Blogger Priya Lynn said...

Anonymous, the only malarkey is coming from you. Relgion is 100% learned. Nobody comes out of the womb believing in Jesus. No one is stupid enough to believe you when you suggest we are born believing in Christianity or Judaism, or Islam. The fact that the place where one is born determines one's religion the vast majority of the times shows its passed on from parent to child. In fact why am I even arguing with you. Your position is sheer idiocy and we all know it.

December 06, 2006 6:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"In fact why am I even arguing with you"

I think you're trying to hide that fact that your statement is malarkey.

December 07, 2006 8:51 AM  
Blogger Priya Lynn said...

What are you, seven? You sure act like it.

December 07, 2006 12:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Seven? I think you're being too generous Randi.

December 10, 2006 1:43 PM  
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