A story by Tonya Fennell for the Sedalia (MO) Democrat reports on the action taken by Assistant Superintendent Brad Pollitt in response to complaints from some parents about T-shirts designed for the school marching band’s program, “Brass Evolutions 2009.” Pollitt says he “made the decision to have the band members turn the shirts in after several concerned parents brought the shirts to my attention,” and he offered this explanation:
Pollitt said the district is required by law to remain neutral where religion is concerned.
“Where religion is concerned,” he said. But where, exactly, is religion concerned, in this T-shirt design? (Click the image at left for the article, with a link for an enlarged version of the image, if you think that might help you find something about religion on the T-shirt.)
Pollitt’s explanation continues:
“If the shirts had said ‘Brass Resurrections’ and had a picture of Jesus on the cross, we would have done the same thing,” he said.
Well, in that case it would be easy to see how religion would be concerned in the design of that T-shirt, but where can we find anything like that kind of religion concerned in the graphic on the T-shirts that he has banned the band from wearing?
One parent (and teacher) offers this explanation for opposition to the T-shirt:
Band parent Sherry Melby, who is a teacher in the district, stands behind Pollitt’s decision. Melby said she associated the image on the T-shirt with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
“I was disappointed with the image on the shirt.” Melby said. “I don’t think evolution should be associated with our school.”
Melby seems to be equating evolutionary biology with “Darwin’s theory of evolution,” which is a common mistake (evolutionary biology, as taught in schools, has advanced beyond anything that can be equated with Darwin’s original theory, although some of Darwin’s discoveries remain fundamental to this underlying theory of biological science). But aside from that, still, where is the religion?
It could be that those who see religion in the T-shirt design have been influenced by those who preach that “Darwinism” is itself a religion. Ann Coulter, for example, has referred to Darwinism as “a crack pot nineteenth century mystery religion.”
This makes no sense to scientists, who know the fundamental difference between science and religion. Science teachers need to be even more clear about this: It’s not enough for science teachers to have a sound but perhaps relatively unarticulated understanding of the difference, since a central concern of their job as science teachers is to help students form their understanding of what science is and how it works, which would necessarily include an understanding of how science differs from religion.
In 2006 the National Council of Churches issued a clear and unequivocal statement on the fundamental difference between religious faith and evolutionary science. Catholic authorities, including the current Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessors since at least Pius XII, also have affirmed the fundamental difference between natural science and religion.
There are now, however, some Christian fundamentalists who preach that “Darwinism” or “evolutionism” or just “evolution” is a religion. (“Darwinism” is a useful name for this alleged “religion” since the word can be used grammatically just like “Calvinism,” for example.) But note: What they are preaching here is itself a particular religious position. You can’t find religion in the T-shirt without adopting this religious position. More to the point: While majority and mainstream religions would not consider that “religion is concerned” by consequence from anything on this T-shirt, there is a minority religious element that would contend that religion is concerned. This is their religious position, which they are entitled to preach under the First Amendment. But since it is a religious teaching, then the school district has abandoned their neutrality on religious matters if it sides with these fundamentalist teachings (and against the mainstream religious majority) and treats the T-shirt as somewhere that “religion is concerned.”
The question of whether religion is concerned here can be considered as, itself, a religious question. If it is, then it’s not “neutral” to take one side on that religious question, the side of those who assert as a matter of their own religious faith that belief in the evolution of species is somehow in itself some kind of “religious” belief, or that it is in some kind of conflict with some religious beliefs of their own.
Neutrality, as required by law, would require that school officials allow the band to continue wearing their T-shirts, rather than banning them on the basis of siding with one group, against other religious groups, on an essentially religious question — a question that is not disputed except by those engaged in religious differences over the nature of religion itself.
Since this incident has been blogged on the Daily Kos and reported elsewhere, it has been getting some attention nation wide. Beyond the interest in just what happened here, however, this use of “neutrality” raises concerns of wider relevance. We will get to those shortly; but first, some final observations on what band parent and district teacher Sherry Melby said (as quoted above):
Melby expressed concern over the T-shirt’s implied reference to evolutionary theory, and said, “I don’t think evolution should be associated with our school.” What the public needs to understand is that evolutionary theory is fundamental theory in the science of biology, just as atomic theory is in chemistry, and number theory is in mathematics. To say “I don’t think evolution should be associated with our school” amounts to saying “I don’t think biology should be associated with our school” — and that would be like saying “I don’t think chemistry [or the atom] should be associated with our school,” or “I don’t think mathematics [or number] should be associated with our school.” Scientific literacy in this country requires a public that understands such things, and supports teaching the real science of biology on the basis of their own understanding of such things, and not just as a matter of yielding to the authority of scientists as the “experts.” I think the new book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, is of great relevance here.
Now, for the broader concern with “neutrality”: The issue is a bit different here, but the school official’s invocation of a “neutrality” requirement is in some ways parallel to the TEA‘s invocation of a “neutrality” requirement as its grounds for forcing Chris Comer out of her job as Science Director for the public schools in Texas. Comer has sued the agency and is now appealing an adverse decision by a federal district court judge. In her case, the TEA had explicitly identified “teaching creationism” in the public schools as the “subject on which [TEA claimed] the agency [and its staff, including Comer] must remain neutral.” As Comer argues in her complaint and appellate brief, for the state to take a “neutral” stance on such teaching of religion in the public schools is clearly unconstitutional following the precedent of Edwards v. Aguillard (in which the Supreme Court ruled against a Louisiana statute mandating “Balanced Treatment” of evolution and creation in the public schools).
It looks like we may be seeing more of these “neutrality” arguments, especially if Comer’s appeal is not successful.