Any time freedom of religion is presented as the absolute right to never encounter another point of view about one’s beliefs, it’s a recipe for trouble.
Case in point: Some parents in North Carolina are suing Lake Norman Charter School to have an award-winning book of poetry removed from the ninth-grade reading list, calling its depiction of lost faith “a frontal assault on Christian beliefs and values.”
That’s right: Exposure to a fictional character’s experience of disbelief is framed as a massive threat to Christian parents and Christianity as a whole.
How fragile is this religion anyway?
The book in question is The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, a coming-of-age story set in present-day Harlem. The heroine is Xiomara Batista, a young Afro-Latina woman who uses poetry as a way to covertly express and explore her authentic self despite expectations imposed on her by her family, culture, social circles, and religious upbringing:
With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself. So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out. But she still can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.
Part of that experience involves grappling with the Catholic faith, something Xiomara discusses in poems like “Confirmation Class,” where she writes:
Jesus feels like a friend / I’ve had my whole childhood / who has suddenly become brand-new; / who invites himself over too often, who texts me too much. / A friend I just don’t think I need anymore. / (I know, I know… even writing that is blasphemous.) / But I don’t know how to tell Mami that this year, / it’s not about feeling unready, / it’s about knowing that this doubt has already been confirmed.
She goes on to describe the pressure to continue believing — “I will feed and clothe no heathens,” her mother says firmly — and explores the coercive nature of compulsory religion.
Apparently, these parents have no sense of irony.
Parents John and Robin Coble argue that the presence of the book in the curriculum amounts to an “endorsement” of its “anti-Christian” themes. Thus, the lawsuit says, the book infringes on the family’s freedom of religion.
The school says they offered the Cobles an alternative book to complete their child’s ninth-grade English requirements. For them, it’s not good enough for students to have a choice about what they wish to read; the fact that the school presents The Poet X as an option for any students at all has them all in a lather.
In fact, they called the alternative-text solution “separate but unequal,” all the while failing to recognize that separation and inequality is precisely what they’re demanding. They’ve chosen to impoverish their child’s education by denying them access to alternative points of view, then complained about being unable to make the same choice for other people’s children.
In the lawsuit, Charlotte lawyer Joel Bondurant writes:
If Christians were gearing up war, no reasonably objective observer could blame them. The school’s plan to teach the book to the young impressionable minds in their public secondary school runs afoul of the basic precept underpinning the Religion Clauses — that government must remain neutral in the matters of religion and is certainly forbidden from promoting or endorsing materials that exhibit hostility toward any particular religion.
Lack of belief is not hostility. Nor is loss of belief. And a blanket refusal to teach works that express criticism of a given religion is not neutrality.
Bondurant and the Cobles have a hard case ahead of them. Legal expert Bill Marshall, who specializes in legal issues related to religion, says courts have hesitated to rule on public school curricula in all but the most blatant cases of proselytizing and religious propaganda.
Literature that explores religion outside the narrow confines of dogma might offend believers, but that’s not a good enough reason to remove it from schools.
Meanwhile, the school has held fast on its refusal to remove the book from the curriculum:
LNC will not fall to pressure to censor The Poet X or any of its other literary selections. Instead, we choose to view this as an opportunity to share our school’s core values and to model navigating differences of opinions and perspectives respectfully and civilly.
That’s a life lesson students can use, along with the lessons in critical thinking and self-reflection that come along with reading others’ perspectives. Efforts to suppress other points of view don’t lend themselves to personal growth, which is the main problem with curriculum censorship in the first place. Education is meant to broaden students’ horizons, not narrow them.
(Thanks to Brian for the link)