When the New York City Board of Education called on public schools to bring back the Pledge of Allegiance in the wake of 9/11, my daughter, a freshman at Stuyvesant High, thought her big chance to protest had finally come. Have you thought about what you’ll say if you have to justify not reciting it? I asked. “Sure,” she replied. “I’ll say, there’s such a thing as the First Amendment, you know–separation of church and state? I mean, under God? Duh!” Judge Alfred Goodwin of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, meet my Sophie, future president of the ACLU if the punk-rock-guitarist plan doesn’t work out.
Virtually every politician in the country has issued a press release deploring Judge Goodwin’s ruling that the words “under God” constituted a coercive endorsement of religion. “Ridiculous!” said the President. Tom Daschle led the Senate in a stampede to condemn the ruling 99 to 0, after they recited the pledge together. The Times editorial expressed the standard liberal line, mingling world-weariness and fear: “under God” is a trivial matter, so why arouse the wrath of the mad Christians? You can turn that argument around though–if it’s so trivial, why not do the right, constitutional thing? Let the nonbelieving babies have their First Amendment bottle! The very fact that the vast majority of Americans believe in God counts against inserting expressions of religious faith into civic exercises for kids–civil liberties are all about protecting unpopular minorities from being steamrollered by the majority. The history of “under God” is not very edifying or even very long: It was added to the original pledge–written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a socialist–by Congress in 1954 as a means “to deny the atheistic and materialistic concept of communism.” If that was the purpose, it worked. The new Evil Ones, however, have no quarrel with being “under God”; it’s the “liberty and justice for all” they disapprove of. If we really want to drive them nuts, we should change “under God” to “with equality between men and women.” Or better yet, retire the pledge as an exercise in groupthink unbefitting a free people.
Something tells me we haven’t seen the last classroom invocation of the divine umbrella–Judge Goodwin has already stayed his own ruling–but even if the decision is upheld, it’s unfortunately the least significant in a number of recent rulings about education. The Supreme Court decision upholding the Cleveland school voucher program is a real, nonsymbolic triumph for organized religion, which stands to reap millions of dollars in public funds, taken directly from the budgets of the weakest school systems. Theoretically, your tax dollars can now support the indoctrination of every crackpot religious idea from creationism to stoning, with extra credit for attending rallies against legal abortion and for the retention of “Judea” and “Samaria” as God’s gift to the Jewish people. What happened to e pluribus unum? (Interestingly, as David Greenberg notes in Slate, e pluribus unum was replaced as the national motto in 1956 by… In God We Trust!) And what about that pesky First Amendment? Writing for the 5-4 majority, Chief Justice Rehnquist argues that separation of church and state is preserved because it is the parent, not the state, who actually turns the voucher over to the religious school. By the same logic, why not a health system in which patients get vouchers good for surgery or a ticket to Lourdes?
The same day brought the Court’s decision upholding random drug testing of students who want to take part in after-school activities. Now there’s a great idea–take the kids who could really use something productive to do with their afternoons, kids who, whatever mischief they’re up to, actually want to run track or sing in the chorus or work on the yearbook, and don’t let them do it! God forbid some 16-year-old pothead should get a part in the drama club production of Arsenic and Old Lace. The harm of the ruling isn’t just that kids who do drugs will now have yet more time on their hands and yet more reason to bond with their fellow slackers, it’s that everyone gets a lesson in collective humiliation and authoritarianism–stoned or straight, the principal can make you pee in a cup. Consider too that one-third of schools now offer abstinence-only sex education, in which kids are told that contraception doesn’t work and having sex before marriage is likely to be fatal–if the kids don’t go to parochial school, apparently, parochial school comes to them.
The prize for the worst school-related decision, though, has to go to the panel of New York State appeals court judges that reversed Justice Leland DeGrasse’s brave and noble ruling invalidating the state’s school funding formula, which gives less money per child to New York City schools despite the fact that city schools have disproportionate numbers of poor and non-English-speaking children. According to Justice Alfred Lerner, author of the court’s majority opinion, the state is required to provide its young only the equivalent of a middle-school education–enough for them to sit on a jury, vote and hold down a menial job. Anything more is optional and can be distributed at will. (Why not let kids drop out after eighth grade, you may ask? Well, then they’d miss abstinence classes and drug tests and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance!) The world needs workers at the lowest levels, the judge observes, so let the black and Hispanic kids of New York City be the hewers of wood and drawers of water and flippers of burgers. Somebody’s got to do it–and it’s a safe bet it won’t be the judges’ children.
Maybe the critical legal theorists are right and the law is merely a form of words into which can be poured whatever meaning the ruling class wants it to have. It’s hard to understand in any other way the court’s willful misunderstandings of the actual conditions of city public schools, so that they could respond to plaintiff’s evidence of schools with decades-old outmoded science textbooks by harrumphing that there’s nothing wrong with libraries full of “classics.”