PolySciFi Blog

Thursday, September 15, 2005


More Newdow

Continuing the series (post 1, post 2, post 3)

There's really two arguments to respond to 1) that I've mischaracterized Newdow's argument and 2) that some religious beliefs are not protected because they're contradicted by science.

First let's reexamine if I've mischaracterized the substance of Newdow's argument. Here's Matt's proposed formulation:
  1. Even when participation is voluntary, asking a child to stand up and say the Pledge of Allegiance is coercive.
  2. Every indication that we have, from Congress's own statements in 1954 on up to President Bush's description, and any commonsense reading of the Pledge of Allegiance will note that it contains an affirmation of religious faith.
  3. Government may not ask children to make statements of religious faith. And before this turns into an argument about whether the Establishment Clause is binding on anyone other than Congress, note that the words "under God" were inserted into the Pledge by Congress.
Of minor importance first, that Congress inserted the words "under God" is immaterial to the case. Congress is not compelling school children to be present during the pledge. According to Newdow, the state of California is the compelling party (pp. 4-5 in link). (However, it would be material to a case deciding if the Pledge itself was Constitutional.)

The only significant point here is whether or not children being "forced to experience teacher-led recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance every morning" is coercive of a child's religious beliefs.

And why does Newdow say it's coercive? Because a) it makes him (and his child) feel like an outsider and b) because it's being led by a figure of authority. But don't take my word for it, take Newdow's. From the argument in Newdow's brief on merits to the Supreme Court in the Elk Grove case - the "precedent" in question:
"That “under God” in the Pledge violates the Establishment Clause can also be appreciated by applying any of the Court’s numerous tests. Here, purely religious dogma is injected into the nation’s sole Pledge of Allegiance, with governmental agents leading small children in repeating that dogma every day. This violates religious neutrality, endorses disputed religious claims, was instituted for a religious purpose, has religious effects, turns citizens into “outsiders” on the basis of their religious beliefs, and – especially in the public school environment – is coercive."
The only assertion of coercion (as opposed to the Constitutionality of the Pledge) is that students are being coerced by virtue of being different, by virtue of being an "outsider" as Newdow says.

Or as he says later (p 14): "Petitioners have an affirmative duty to remedy – not promote – situations where students are turned into “outsiders” due to their religious beliefs." In fact, this is Newdow's central point as he takes the effort to point out (footnote 19) that: "Petitioners have already admitted that Respondent has been turned into an “outsider” due to the now Monotheistic Pledge."

Newdow turns to the figure of authority as coercion in Argument I B 4 but still includes the outsider point: "Coercion stems not only from the didactic nature of the teacher-student relationship (where pupils attempt to please their instructors), but from the aversion youngsters have to being saddled with the “outsider” status just noted."

Now let's reiterate my summation of Newdow's argument:
"The pledge is an example of state coercion because a) it occurs on state property with state blessing (the state part) and b) constitutes coercion because it makes atheistic students feel like outsiders since the atheists do not ascribe to the endorsed state position."
So I fail to see how my summation differs substantively from Newdow's actual argument.

Back to the education points and responding in fisking fashion since there's enough different points to respond to that I think having the lines here for reference will be useful:
"The Pledge of Allegiance, unlike biology, health, history, and physics (the other subjects he mentions) is a statement of belief, something that students are asked to swear to, hand on heart Newdow makes this point again and again and again in his oral argument."

Any educational instruction spreads a set of belief (what else is education?). But students are not required to swear to a belief in God, but they are repeatedly asked if they believe the state's beliefs (homework, tests, classroom interactions..)
"I have no problem with such a pledge (in fact, I believe that the public schools should do more to teach citizenship and, pace Richard, national culture)." [I believe something got dropped about from the original post on a pledge sans "under God"]
I concur.
"However, Congress is specificially denied the right to make the statement that the United States is a nation under God. (And Congress sets the words of the Pledge)."
That's debatable. Congress would be denied the right to compel someone to say that the US is a nation under God, but insertion of such a phrase is no more a violation of the first amendment than a national day of prayer or to put "In God We Trust" on our currency.
"When you ask students to swear to the truth of something, to stand up and recite an oath daily, that's very different than asking them questions about evolution on a biology test."
Are there not right and wrong answers on the biology test? Is the state (and a student's peers) not saying that X is true? You're actually compelled to take the test, you're not compelled to state the Pledge. If you fail to state the pledge, perhaps you feel bad because of being an outsider. If you refuse to answer part of the test or give an answer other than the answer the state says is true, you feel like an outsider AND your grade is reduced. Which is the example of greater coercion to state sanctioned truth?
"The controversial parts of the school curriculum are the result of century-long struggles and debates. Quantum mechanics wasn't in physics textbooks until the idea had been debated, tested, shown to be useful in predicting real-world results, and so on; the same is true of evolution and health. (History is obviously a bit of a different case, but I think I can make an argument along similar lines about it if necessary)."
So English is out of bounds? No real world results.

And as I noted above, lots of theories don't have testable real world results (a plethora of theories if I go to results testable by school age children - Jefe, what's a plethora?). Further, I don't see an "except for scientific theories" exception in the first amendment, so I don't see how a legal distinction can be drawn.
"These theories were put into textbooks when, and only when, a significant majority of experts in each field came to believe they described objective truth."
That's a really bad distinction to use (tyranny of the majority and what not). But even Newdow acknowledges that the majority of Americans believe the existence of God is the truth (that's the premise of being an outsider).
"The words "under God" were inserted into the Pledge by Congressional fiat in 1954."
And evolution was inserted into the curriculum by Congressional fiat in 1958. But as I said above, it's irrelevant to the case and to this discussion.
"Describing our nation as "under God" is, on its face, a statement about religious faith; it is not a scientific theory with real world applications that ends up having disastrous implications for a set of religious beliefs."
The criteria here I see are a) gotta be a statement of religious faith and b) scientific theories with real world applications cannot be a statement of religious faith. But both fail as suitable legal distinctions. To a majority of Americans, evolution is a statement of religious faith. Further evolution doesn't have a real world application. Genetics, yes. Beyond just evolution, there's lots of scientific theories (e.g., beginning of the universe) that many consider to be statements of religious faith that have no real world application (I'm looking at you, M-brane theory).
"I'd also note that no first-grader gets taught evolution or quantum mechanics; by the time children encounter these ideas they are much less vulnerable to coercion."
I don't think age actually matters, but contra Newdow and Matt, I think teenagers are more subject to peer pressure than first graders.

Bottom line
While I agree that the current science curriculum should be continued as-is , I just don't see how a legal distinction can be drawn if one buys Newdow's "being-an-outsider-is-coercion" argument.


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