A judge deals with silliness in school

June 03, 1999|By George F. Will

YOU CANNOT blame the judge for becoming cranky, as when he denounced a particular pedagogic device in the Bedford Central school district as "terminally dumb." Still, one does not usually come across such dicta in judicial rulings, so consider the concatenation of foolishness that made Judge Charles Brieant waspish, and occasionally foolish himself.

In Bedford Central, in suburban Westchester County, New York, some Roman Catholic parents became understandably exasperated but excessively litigious about the nonsense infesting their children's education. So they went to court with 15 examples of what they called the "Bedford Program" to promote "Satanism and occultism, pagan religions and a New Age Spirituality."

The parents said the schools were violating their parental and privacy rights, and both of the First Amendment's religion clauses, one proscribing establishment of religion, the other protecting free exercise of religion. They also wanted -- here their truculence is justified -- the court to apply "the same draconian limitations imposed by the federal courts on Judeo-Christian religious practice in the public schools to Eastern religions and religious-type practices."

Teaching attitude

Judge Brieant, waist deep in such legal swamps as the definition of religion and the scope of academic freedom, decided that there was no Bedford Program but that many "random acts initiated by individual schoolteachers" might constitute a "Bedford Attitude." Indeed.

He gave short shrift to most complaints, such as that about "Magic: The Gathering," a math-oriented card game (manufactured in California -- "naturally," says Judge Brieant, not missing an opportunity to editorialize). The cards used by elementary and middle school pupils have illustrations of zombies, goblins, vampires, a skull, a whirling dervish, a wall of bones. But the games were played by voluntary clubs before or after school and, Judge Brieant says, "no reasonable person could regard sponsoring this game as a teaching of religion."

But what would a reasonable person make of Ganesha? As part of an "international enrichment" week, some students studied the culture of India -- making batiks and paisley designs, cooking Indian foods. And they were planning to make models of Ganesha, an elephant-headed Hindu god.

Judge Brieant spotted "subtle coercive pressure" in the plan to make images of Ganesha. "While reading the Ganesha story can be part of a neutral secular curriculum, this court fails to find any educational justification for telling young impressionable students to construct images of a known religious god."

So, acting as education czar, Judge Brieant laid down the law -- or his whim, which here is much the same thing -- about what has "educational justification." And making the models would have the "appearance" of "endorsing" Ganesha, and hence could "establish" religion. Really.

Judge Brieant found no constitutional violation in the yoga exercises taught to one class by the turbaned Sikh Khalsa. Or in another classroom guest, "the Rock Hound," saying that some people believe crystals have magical powers.

Or in the "meditation program" in which children were asked to imagine that "their bodies were filling with blue liquid." Or in the "peer facilitator" program where young students met with older students to discuss sex, drugs, rock 'n' roll and Monica Lewinsky.

Or in the cemetery visit where, among the things Judge Brieant considers "terminally dumb," was an adult waving a stick to magically ward off animal attacks. Or in the classroom appearance by the Rev. Nancy Weber, whom Judge Brieant, throwing a rhetorical elbow, calls "a self-proclaimed psychic, although her psychic powers did not extend to predicting the date on which the trial testimony would be concluded."

However, Judge Brieant had constitutional worries about worry dolls, made of toothpicks and wire and sold at the school store. Store personnel told some children that if placed under their pillows at night, the dolls would "chase away" bad dreams. Judge Brieant said this "prefers superstition over religion," violating the First Amendment. Really.

Thought cop

Judge Brieant was quite cross about various "truly bizarre" accompaniments of Earth Day, including a lot of enviro-gush about our kinship with beasts and trees. Acting as thought cop, Judge Brieant held that a teacher's assertion that Earth is overpopulated "violated the school district's rule on academic freedom," which says: "Indoctrination of any matter of faith or opinion will not be tolerated." In Bedford Central, academic freedom is to be protected by prohibiting academics from expressing opinions.

What is tolerated is a judge issuing capricious fiats because Bedford Central tolerated the leakage of silliness into schools, which provoked reciprocal silliness from parents.

George F. Will writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 6/03/99

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