Parents of two elementary school students last week filed a lawsuit against the St. Johns County School District, saying their children's constitutional rights were violated when teachers required them to rehearse a song that declares "there's no doubt" the United States is a Christian nation.
The school in question is The Webster School, in St. Augustine Florida, about 30 miles south of where I grew up in Jacksonville. The song in question is In God We Still Trust, by Diamond Rio. Go read the lyrics before you go any further. They're relevant.
You're back? Good. If you're like me, your first reaction (before reading the lyrics) was a little bit of mild outrage that public schools are still making kids sing religious songs. After reading the lyrics, I see it as much more than that. Let's leave aside the question of whether or not teaching lame songs with twangy accents is damaging to children. Should Public Schools really be teaching third graders to stand up on one side (or the other) of a highly contentious political issue? An issue that's so plainly the topic of heated debate? A topic that I'd say is as often misunderstood and/or misrepresented by advocates on either side of the argument.
Yeah, that's right Johnny. This is not merely a religious song. It's an admonition to stand outside those Godless courthouses and tell them to stop trying to take God out of your school. "...it's time for all believers to make our voices heard."
I couldn't care less if Diamond Rio and their fans feel disenfranchised by the Constitution. I couldn't care less that they think they should push back against what they view as pushing God out of the public square. I happen to think they're wrong and they'll find me on the other side of the argument. What I do have an issue with is teaching third graders in a Public School (in essence) that all those court decisions insulating public institutions from religious indoctrination are going to make the country go to hell. And that's exactly what this song is about. (A little side note while we're talking about pernicious music: The State of Maryland is considering changing it's State Song since it's still rooted in stomping out northern aggression. “She is not dead, nor deaf, nor dumb — Huzza! She spurns the Northern scum!" I had no idea I was still oppressing them when I visited Ocean City. Oh well).
I honestly don't recommend you read the bazillion comments after the article. There's enough stupidity and vitriol on both sides to make you feel both incensed and embarrassed at the same time. (If you don't cringe about at least one comment by someone on your own side of the argument, I don't want to know you.) Suffice it to say that the comments are filled with CAPS-LOCK-RANTING and no-caps-rebuttals and long paragraphs with no punctuation and grammar so bad that you're not sure what point they're arguing. There are disingenuous comments claiming that the teachers didn't intend to be indoctrinating their students. (If they didn't know that might be an issue, they're too stupid to be trusted with the class aquarium, much less a room full of eight-year-olds.) I may be mixing this up with comments I saw to another article about the same topic, but I'm sure as hell not going to waste time arguing with someone who sees no difference between this song and chorale music by Bach. And another thing... seeing In God We Trust printed on currency doesn't raise my personal hackles but if you keep using that as an argument to justify prayers in school, it will.
The thing is, under usual circumstances, I wouldn't get very excited about this story. I'm fairly confident that the court will eventually stomp on the school and the school will whine a lot, but follow the court order and a bunch of parents will continue fighting over the issue and blah, blah, blah, blah. What got me was this part of the article; one that a lot of people seemed to hang their hats on:
"The suit alleged the Webster School teachers in charge of the assembly -- Dawn Caronna and Debbie Moore, who along with the district and Principal George Leidigh were named as defendants -- told students March 11 if any of them objected to singing "In God We Still Trust," they wouldn't have to do so. But if they didn't wish to practice that song they would be excluded from the entire performance."
That's a situation I have some personal experience with. When I was a kid, I went to a Jewish Private School from First through Third grades. At the time, they couldn't afford to have the school go any further, so in fourth grade, I entered Jacksonville's Public School system. I'm not even going to address the fact that the kids could opt out but only if they wished to be excluded from the entire performance. If you don't get why that little caveat might be a problem with eight-year-olds, you're just a heartless, brainless, idiot and you're incapable of having any discussion I'd like to take part in. (Note: if that last sentence offended you, I'm not sorry and don't expect anything you've got to say to change my mind. If you decide to try anyway, please remember I was referring to that little caveat when I started calling you names.)
No, I'm talking about that innocuous offer to allow children to opt out of activities that they or their parents might find contrary to their own personal beliefs. I remember being allowed to opt out of singing Christmas carols. In order to do so, I had to raise my hand, stand up, and announce to the class that I was Jewish and my parents didn't want me singing Christmas carols. I didn't have to do this just once. I had to do it every time the music class portion of the day was about to begin. After announcing to the class that I was different, I was allowed to go sit in the hall. Different teachers had different ideas about what I should do while I sat in the hall. Some thought I should just sit there and do nothing; others thought I should make use of the time by working on my math homework. Regardless, I didn't feel like I was opting out from an activity; I felt like I was volunteering for a punishment.
Maybe I'm just whining here. Maybe I'm still assuming after all these years that my classmates thought I was somehow alien because of my own voluntary announcement. Maybe I'm just imagining that the idea might have been reinforced when our teacher responded by saying, "Nathan and his family don't believe in Christ our Lord and Savior, so he'll be excused from this morning's lesson". Yeah, that's it. I was just imagining things.
Before one of you suggests I should have developed a thicker skin, you should know that that's exactly what I did do. But is it really right to make a little kid stand up and take some stand that guarantees he'll be treated differently? I'm not talking about giving every kid a blue ribbon regardless of how well they make a diorama or spike a volleyball so that none of them will have their self-esteem damaged. I'm talking about adults expecting children to have the courage of their convictions. They're fucking kids! I'm pretty sure those lessons are supposed to come in stages geared toward a kid's level of maturity. I'm not sure how old a kid should be before he's expected to stand against the tide, but I'm fairly certain that Eight is a little young.
I don't really expect the arguments over separation of Church and State to come to some happy resolution any time soon, but would you all do me one little favor? How about if you stop enlisting children as soldiers in your little war? 'K? At the risk of shoving my own beliefs down your throats, I recommend they shouldn't be conscripted before they're old enough for a Bar Mitzvah.
Edited to add: Having thought about this particular case a little more, I'd like to think I'd have sued if I were a devout Christian. That song is just damned Un-American.