New Age lawsuit raises serious issues

Sunday, June 6, 1999

Some called the lawsuit wacky. Others thought it was a waste of time. But a federal judge just gave a partial victory to the three Catholic families who sued a New York school district for promoting New Age religion and occultism in the curriculum.

Regular readers may recall from an earlier column about this case that the objecting parents and students had sought to end 15 practices allowed by the school, including lessons by a yoga instructor, a club dedicated to the card game “Magic: The Gathering” and a field trip to a cemetery.

The judge dismissed 12 of their complaints. That's not surprising, since courts are generally reluctant to interfere with the public-school curriculum. Judges tend to defer to school boards and educators concerning what should and shouldn't be taught.

But on the remaining three issues, the court agreed with the objecting parents. According to the judge, the school was unconstitutionally advancing religion by:

  • Promoting rituals at an Earth Day celebration that included building an altar and reciting a creed to “Mother Earth.”
  • Having students make “worry dolls” that are supposed to keep anxieties away when placed under the child's pillow.
  • Assigning third graders to make models of Ganesha, an elephant-headed Hindu god.

It's doubtful that the teachers involved in these activities intended to “establish” or “promote” religion. Most likely, they were simply trying to find creative ways to enliven their lessons.

But the objecting parents viewed these activities as representing a double standard. As they saw it, while practices associated with Christianity and Judaism aren't allowed in the classroom, those associated with “New Age” worldviews or Eastern religions are OK (and are not even acknowledged as “religious”).

Anger, distrust and years of feeling ignored are what fuel lawsuits like this — not worry dolls or Hindu gods.

Bad cases do, indeed, make bad law. Schools are now stuck with a ruling that will inevitably create more confusion about what is and isn't permissible concerning religion in the public-school curriculum. (Not to mention the confusion about what is or isn't “religion.”)

Smart schools will take this case as a signal that they must develop sound policies on how to deal with religion in the classroom. As the judge himself emphasized, teaching about religion is fully constitutional — as long as it is done properly.

Of course, students can and should learn about religions. But they shouldn't be involved in role-playing religious ceremonies or asked to do other things that might violate their conscience. Preparing teachers to get this right takes some work.

Unfortunately, many schools won't do the work required. Instead, fear of being sued — from the right or the left — will continue to lead many teachers and administrators to ignore religion as much as possible.

The irony is that ignoring religion (while at the same time allowing practices that some parents view as religious) is exactly what has created the distrust and anger among religious parents in the first place.

The only way forward — and the only way to end the vicious cycle of conflicts and lawsuits — is to take religion seriously in the schools. And that necessitates policies and practices that encourage study about religion in ways that are both constitutionally permissible and educationally sound.