What If A Creationist Did This?

Posted in Atheism, Legislation, Religion on  | 3 minutes | 6 Comments →

While reading a recent Chronicle feature by staff writer Jill Tucker, I quickly learned that Gary Healy teaches mathematics at John Muir Middle School in San Leandro, California. I also learned the teacher discovered a package of religious flyers in his mailbox one day, with a note asking to distribute them to his students.

Healy was shocked and refused to distribute the flyers, which were ostensibly for a Bible-based support group dealing with issues related to peer pressure. Tucker reported that at day's end the flyers remained on Healy's desk, so, at least for that day, Healy directly broke with official district policy, which maintains that flyer distribution for non-profits occurs on an all-or-none basis. I was really hoping to catch some crank gassing online about how this is a heroic response to an outrageous moral evil that should be addressed in the name of the separation clause, but to date I haven't found any. 

At the very least, Tucker's article made me wonder how various atheists would react. How many would view Healy as a hero? Surely some; possibly many or most. However, the more vexing question was whether any atheists would be courageous or unbiased enough to say Healy was in the wrong.

In particular, I wondered what the Chaplain would think. A few weeks back she penned an interesting article taking certain believers to task for breaking the law to get their
point across during this year's Olympics, and that article immediately came to mind when I read Tucker's.

Chaplain basically argued that such believers were in the wrong to defy official policy in favor of promoting their beliefs, a point I more or less agree with. I also think Healy was equally in the wrong to defy official policy in favor of promoting his belief, which is that the content of the flyers was hogwash. In effect, Healy defied official policy in an effort to censor information he disagreed with, remarking, "If I give it to my students, doesn't it imply I'm approving it? Because I don't…"

Does this not have the ring of, um, I don't know? Censorship? Thought-control?

District spokeswoman Robin Michel commented, "Since we do allow
non-profit organizations to distribute (at schools), it's all or none."
Whether he agreed with their content or not, Healy was required to distribute the flyers. Recent federal court decisions have determined that a school district's
flyer distribution policy may not discriminate against religious
groups. It is also illegal for teachers to pick and choose which flyers
they will distribute, and teachers who refuse to distribute such leaflets do not have any constitutional protection.

Folks, this is clearly not a case of special privilege for religion. If in the name of freethought you are tempted to think Healy is a hero, think again, because to think so is to say that even when a
religious group has been vindicated by law, it is still okay to censor them if you don't approve of their agenda.

One thing I'll take a gamble on any day is this:

If Gary Healy was a Christian who refused to distribute flyers promoting peer-pressure solutions based on evolutionary theory to his students, the response to him from the atheist & freethought communities would be very, very different, and that, to me, is an unfortunate double-standard.


6 comments

  1. Sye T

     says...

    Hello,
    Great blog! Thanks for your post over at “Daylight Atheism.” I’d be happy to discuss apologetics further at your convenience. My e-mail address is sye@proofthatgodexists.org
    Please also feel free to check out my website, and post your comments on it here.
    Cheers,
    Sye

  2. Sye T

     says...

    Hello,
    Great blog! Thanks for your post over at “Daylight Atheism.” I’d be happy to discuss apologetics further at your convenience. My e-mail address is sye@proofthatgodexists.org
    Please also feel free to check out my website, and post your comments on it here.
    Cheers,
    Sye

  3. Very interesting post, and I think you make a very good point.
    But let’s take this out of the theist/atheist context for a second. Let’s suppose an anti-semetic non-profit group submitted a flyer, and the teacher refused to pass it out. Under those circumstances, I think atheists and theists alike would praise the teacher for acting on conscience, am I right?
    Maybe it’s our complex political traditions in this country, but I think the problem you’re pointing to arises from a tension between admiration for the rule of law and admiration for civil disobedience (i.e., the “individual of conscience” standing up to a perceived injustice).
    That being said, I’d agree that many resolve that tension in favor of their own prejudices, but I’m not sure what else to expect. It all comes down to the cause you believe in. I think none of us would admire a bus driver from the 1960s who forced an African American to sit in the back of a bus because, well, that’s the rule. We’d call that person, perhaps, a coward or the willing tool of oppression.
    Pardon me for prattling on so long, and I don’t mean to muddle things up, but I’m trying to tease out a point here.

  4. cl

     says...

    Lifeguard,
    Thanks for stopping by; I noticed your blog was quiet for a while but hey that’s life. Sometimes I get sick of this stuff too.
    It’s a good point you bring up. The ‘acting on conscience’ factor is definitely something people should be aware of in all laws. You know, it’s the old argument the letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law. Problem is, and to keep with our example of anti-semetism, even Hitler was acting on conscience; with a perceived consciousness that we was morally right. If, when we say a person is ‘acting on conscience’ we mean that they are acting from their beliefs or convictions, then the ‘conscience’ each person acts from is unique and potentially conflicting, and then the next discussion unfortunately involves trying to discern who’s right and wrong in a world where there are not as many agreed absolutes as we need.
    The point you make is certainly valid, but I think the example of an anti-semetic group seeking flyer distribution is in a different category than both examples mentioned in the OP. I think most people would say that teacher would be heroic and doing the right thing for not distributing them; wouldn’t you? I would imagine the hypothetical flyer in question would have some bona fide anti-semetic message or hateful iconography as well, whereas at least ostensibly, the other two examples don’t promote hatred or racism outright.
    Another point to consider would be that the anti-semetic group would already be culpable of breaking 501(c)3 laws which prohibit the use of non-profits for such purposes. This should stop the flyer from even reaching the teacher’s hands in the first place, in theory, but it’s of course possible that a batch of neo-Nazi flyers could just ‘show-up’ in a teacher’s inbox, and of course that teacher is excellent and praiseworthy should they trash them.
    Although different people of different stripe will no doubt react differently to an evolution-based or Bible-based peer pressure group, neither appears to promote direct hatred, and any person who ‘acts on conscience’ by trashing either one of those flyers has much less ‘authentic’ moral ground to stand on, at least IMO.

  5. CL:
    Thanks, good to see you still doing your thing. Me? I’ve taken a sabbatical from blogging, but I’m still lurking here and there.
    I thought about some of the issues you raised, particularly the 503(c) point, regarding my example, but the purpose of the example, I was just trying to isolate an issue of conscience that I figured atheists and theists would both agree on for the purpose of highlighting that it’s a matter of perspective whether one praises an individual for passing out a flyer even if they disagree with it or calls someone unfair for refusing to pass out a flyer they disagree with and accusing them of censorship.
    Another example might be, what would happen if we captured Osama Bin Laden and put him on trial in the United States. He gets a court appointed lawyer. If the lawyer refuses to accept the case, do we praise him? Or do we criticize him for it? If he decides to go forward with the representation, is he villified for representing such a monster? Or is he really performing an act of high patriotism in zealously representing his client?
    Maybe the point here is that the way we resolve these ambiguities says just as much about the one passing judgement as it does about the judged.

  6. cl

     says...

    …it’s a matter of perspective whether one praises an individual for passing out a flyer even if they disagree with it or calls someone unfair for refusing to pass out a flyer they disagree with and accusing them of censorship.

    I completely agree. And in all honesty, I don’t really think that Gary Healy is guilty of censorship as much as he is just an unfortunate guy who got caught in a complex moral decision. I don’t mean to accuse the guy and should maybe watch my words; I only mean to point out that, as religionists can break the law by promoting religion, religion’s critics can equally break the law by suppressing it. To me these are two equal and opposite cases in that sense.
    I do offer “censorship” as a description of what in effect transpired, to the same extent that I offer “illegal proselytization” in the case of the Olympic Christians. For that group to claim their rights were violated or whatnot is gibberish. Besides, they could just as easily have assembled peacefully in prayer, or just talked to people (hey that’s a concept) about the Bible instead. Raising a fuss about it and decrying the Chinese of ‘persecution’ would be 1) highly disrespectful to the Chinese culture as Chaplain pointed out; and 2) would show the inability of those believers to respect the authorities who govern the province they’re in, whose law they are under.
    I argue that we have to treat them equally, unless one can present a standard by which we can say Healy’s desire to suppress the flyer is somehow “less illegal” than the Olympic Christians desire to promote the gospel.

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