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Pagans, atheists, Christians and the battle for equal treatment

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Charles C. Haynes
January 12, 2012

Religious freedom is hugely popular in America—until, of course, it’s applied to unpopular groups.


Consider North Windy Ridge Intermediate School in Buncombe County, N.C. In December, school officials arranged for students to come by the office during break to pick up Bibles donated by the Gideons.


In the view of many people in the community (especially those of the majority faith), outside groups such as the Gideons should have a religious-liberty right to distribute Bibles in public schools.


But then Ginger Strivelli, a parent with a child in the school, brought pagan spell books for the school to make available in the same way—and, poof, the distribution policy disappeared.


Strivelli didn’t actually want the school to give out religious material of any kind. But after her complaints about Bible distribution were rebuffed, she decided to test the school district’s commitment to equal treatment.


According to a story in the Asheville Citizen-Times, the school’s principal was all for fair play in December: “If another group wishes to do the same,” she said at the time, “I plan on handling that the same way as I have handled this.”


By January, however, the school district had decided that maybe the whole distribution thing wasn’t such a good idea after all.


It may be legal for school administrators at North Windy Ridge to arrange for “passive” distribution of religious materials (at least one lower court has upheld such a policy), but if, and only if, they are willing to give the same access to a wide variety of religious and community groups. That’s unlikely to happen in Buncombe County.


Strivelli’s strategy of demanding “equal treatment” has been successfully used by other minority groups to push back against what they see as the privileged place of the majority faith in the public square.


In recent years, for example, atheists have moved from demanding removal of crèches from government spaces in December to demanding equal treatment for their own message. Now many government buildings and public parks during the holiday season feature messages such as “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven, and no hell” alongside Nativity scenes and menorahs.


Not surprisingly, the equal-treatment tactic angers many people of the majority faith (atheist “holiday signs” in Santa Monica, Calif., were vandalized last year). But in other First Amendment arenas, equal treatment is exactly what many Christians demand for themselves when they believe government is unfairly excluding their organizations from programs or services.


In recent decades, for example, conservative Christian groups have argued that the First Amendment’s establishment clause doesn’t bar faith-based institutions from receiving taxpayer money in the form of school vouchers or funds for social-service programs on the same basis as secular organizations. And on the school-voucher question, at least, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed.


“Equal treatment” is a siren song few faith communities can resist. But applying it is often messy for government at best—and dangerous for religion at worst. In a country with thousands of religious groups, how can schools or city halls open the door to all? And if and when state money flows to religious institutions, what happens to the independent and prophetic voice of faith?


Wherever the courts ultimately draw the establishment-clause line on these difficult questions (and there are many line-drawing battles to come), the days of an unlevel playing field are numbered. The legal trend is clear: If government provides access or benefits to some, it had better be prepared to provide the same for all.


Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C., 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. Email: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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