he first annual review of our public policies was completed, and Revision B was accepted at the October meeting of the Board of Directors. Members of the committee that performed the review were Bjorn Watland, Crystal Dervetski, August Berkshire and myself. The review committee made minor, non-substantive edits to existing policies, and added new policies, which are provided below. – George Kane
Government Entanglement with Religion
Threats to Secular Government
A core policy concern of Minnesota Atheists is to secure secular government from the superstitions, prejudices and dogma of religion. The most acute threat around the world is from a global network of religiously inspired paramilitary cells.
Religious insurrection can never be defeated by bullets, because there will always be more of the faithful ready to take up arms. Paramilitary groups can only exist when they have support in their communities. Victory in this war depends much less on the action of armies than the contest of beliefs and values. Armies can never win the clash of cultures, though they will have occasional, limited roles.
Around the world, perceived insults to their religion have incited immigrant communities to violent rioting. The response to these problems must be not only in police actions, but also in cultural outreach. It is crucial that countries that have adopted secular values do not compromise them. We cannot abandon our commitment to equality and justice, or condone religious discrimination, and not be recognized as hypocrites. Neither can we yield on freedom of speech and freedom of the press. We must not succumb to the self-censorship that silences legitimate criticism of religion for fear of violent retaliation.
In nations where law is dictated by religion we find severe human rights violations (particularly against women and the GLBT community); legal suppression of non-believers (including criminalizing apostasy); and religious indoctrination that masquerades as education. This clearly demonstrates that secular government leads to a higher quality of life and greater equality.
We must strive to strengthen the world’s commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Especially we have to oppose the efforts in the United Nations to have defamation of religion recognized as an international crime.
The Constitution of the state of Minnesota draws clear guidelines for the separation of religion and government Article 13, Section 2, by identifying the lines where government and religion must not intrude upon one another: “In no case shall any public money or property be appropriated or used for the support of schools wherein the distinctive doctrines, creeds or tenets of any particular Christian or other religious sect are promulgated or taught,” and also Article 1, Section 16: “nor shall any money be drawn from the treasury for the benefit of any religious societies or religious or theological seminaries.” Minnesota Atheists supports clear guidelines for separation of religion and government in all areas of public education (K- University) and asserts that it is better to err on the side of clear separation than to support a policy that violates these guidelines.
Opponents of the separation of church and state try to influence education policy in several areas:
1) Science in the classroom
In the teaching of science, public schools need to adopt a curriculum that is approved by the scientific community. For example, evolution is a theory that has been accepted by established science. Religious stories of creation by supernatural means have no basis in accepted science and are matters of faith. Intelligent Design is a supernatural claim that cannot be verified empirically, makes no predictions, and is not falsifiable. Furthermore, the Kitzmiller v. Dover case clearly established that Intelligent Design is not science and should not be taught in science class.
In the non-science curriculum, public education should not display any bias toward religion. Schools should teach about the influence of religion on culture and society, but without endorsing religion or religious ideology. In literature and history classes it is permissible to use religious texts as long as there is no promotion of religion over non-religion.
Prayer should follow established Federal guidelines for public schools (K – university). No public employee should lead or endorse prayer in the public schools. Prayer should be a private matter and not involved in any ceremony or activity promoted by a public school. Collective prayer is always coercive for elementary and high school students. A mandated moment of silence is only a thinly veiled collective prayer.
In the event that a public school should designate a room for prayer, meditation, or silence, the room should not be used for proselytizing. Anyone using the room should do so in silence when others of a different belief system are present. No symbols, books, or literature should be permanently displayed in the room. The room should not promote any religion over any other, nor religion over non-religion.
3) Sex education in public school
Public schools should provide a sex education curriculum that is consistent with the research on what is effective and helpful to the health of students. An abstinence-only program that is taught with a religious motivation violates separation. Abstinence may be advocated only in conjunction with instruction in safe prophylactic practices.
4) Religious activities in public schools
In 1990, in the case Westside Community Schools v. Mergens, the Supreme Court ruled that the Equal Access Act, which permitted public school students to form religious clubs that meet during non-instructional time if they permit secular clubs, was constitutional. The Court ruled in 2001 in the case Good News Club v. Milford Central School that if public schools rent out rooms to secular groups that they must rent them to religious groups on the same terms. In both cases, the court ruled that public schools may not discriminate against groups on the basis of religious content. Earlier courts came to contrary rulings by applying the Lemon Test, which Minnesota Atheists believes should be the governing precedent.
Accepting the decisions in the Westside and Milford cases, Minnesota Atheists believes that public schools must still take care to avoid violating the Establishment Clause. Rooms should be rented to religious groups at the same rate applied to secular groups, and strictly audited. No student or staff member may be required to participate in any religious activity. There may be no religious indoctrination during instructional time. Faculty may not promote or recruit for religious Equal Access Clubs or for outside religious groups meeting on school grounds, as this would give the appearance official endorsement. All school-sponsored activities must avoid in act and appearance promoting religion.
Minnesota Atheists opposes the practice of religious release time.
5) Teaching comparative religion and texts
Comparative religion and religious texts (Bible, Koran, etc.) may be taught if presented in an unbiased manner with text material that clearly has no presentation bias. Advocacy, both religious and atheistic, must be strictly avoided, even by outside presenters. The public school must balance the bias that may appear in such classes by performing a close scrutiny of the materials used and of the instructor. Instruction in comparative religion done from a secular approach may have a positive effect on students. A survey of world religions should include atheism and other non theistic worldviews.
Vouchers are a method of giving parents a choice in the schools their children attend. Public funds, even where given to the parent to spend, should not be used to pay for an education at a religious school. Funding school programs that include religious activity makes it difficult if not impossible to separate the funding of religious from nonreligious instruction. It is therefore our policy that vouchers should not be used in any payment to attend a religious school.
7) Academic Freedom
Academic freedom should be a guideline for the presentation of material within the public school system (K – University). The teaching of any subject should protect the right of an educator to present their material without infringement. The guideline for academic freedom does not extend to the presentation of a religious bias in any curriculum presented in a public school. For example, Intelligent Design must not be taught as an alternative to evolution in a science classroom. ID might be presented along with other concepts of creation in a study of cultural differences, but not as science. The Bible may be taught as literature, but it should not be taught with any doctrinal bias, e.g., claiming that the virgin birth of Jesus or the Trinity are matters of fact and not faith. Academic freedom does not give a license to teach lies as truth, faith as fact, myth as science, or material not endorsed by sound educational practice. Education should teach critical thinking and not dogma.
8) Charter Schools
Charter schools are publicly financed schools designed for a specific need or curriculum. Charter schools should be bound by the same rules ensuring separation of church and state as conventional public schools. Even if the students of a charter school are of a single religion, the school must not be used as a vehicle of religious instruction. No school should be housed on the same grounds as a house of worship, and when school employees have church offices, there must be a clear delineation of responsibilities.
End of Life Issues
Laws regulating end-of-life issues must be based on individual freedom and secular consequences. Religious ideas – such as the belief that humans have “souls” or that a god’s wishes must prevail – cannot be considered when making secular law. Such religious ideas may legitimately influence personal decisions, but they cannot be the basis for secular laws that must apply to everyone. Minnesota Atheists supports the right of mentally competent, terminally ill people who are unable to find relief from their illness to have the voluntary options of self-termination, doctor-assisted suicide, or euthanasia. Consent of the patient in these end-of-life decisions shall be sufficient to shield doctors and others from legal prosecution in their efforts to fulfill the wishes of terminally ill patients.
Minnesota Atheists supports safeguards to ensure that the personal decision to end one’s life is truly voluntary. We support efforts to make sure that the desire to self-terminate is not merely the result of depression that might be alleviated through medication or counseling, or of financial or emotional pressure being put on the person by relatives or others.
Minnesota Atheists encourages people to create living wills (advance care, end-of-life directives) to make their end-of-life desires clearly known to people they trust, who can, if necessary, act on their behalf if they become unable to communicate.
It is only by giving people the right to make such end-of-life decisions for themselves that we maintain human dignity.