Neutrality Partiality

I have a short essay on the Library of Law and Liberty site involving the idea of religious neutrality when it comes to American public and private education. It was occasioned in part by the Colorado Supreme Court’s recent decision invalidating, pursuant to its state Blaine Amendment, a local program that would have made tuition scholarships available to certain students, which the students could then use to pay to attend private religious and nonreligious schools. I criticize the decision but use it to talk about certain broader issues. Here’s a bit from the conclusion:

Focusing on these details of Colorado law, however, obscures certain larger questions. If “sectarian” truly does mean “Catholic,” and even if it means, as Black’s Law Dictionary says, “of, relating to, or involving a particular religious sect,” then any state Blaine Amendment with this language would be subject to constitutional challenge under the Supreme Court’s free exercise law. “Sectarian” does not sound particularly neutral; or, to the extent it does, it sounds in the rather counterintuitive neutrality of state-endorsed religious hostility. Yet even this perspective on the question of neutrality passes over the colossal non-neutrality of the government’s systematic and exclusive funding of its own putatively religion-neutral schools, to the detriment of able students—many of them from poor and educationally underserved communities—who would greatly benefit from private religious schooling. Neutrality between religion and non-religion seems to demand a plainly partial allocation of resources. Or, one variety of government neutrality—no funding of religious schools—obstructs the achievement of another—educational opportunity.

The question of the place of religion in American educational life—whether in the nation’s public schools or in its position on private religious schools—will not be answered by neutrality talk, for the fundamental reason that nothing in the projects of American education is or ever has been neutral toward religion. From the very first, it was precisely the non-neutrality of the state toward religion that has been one of the prime catalysts of cultural and legal development in American education policy, public and private. There is an understandable tendency among some opponents of state Blaine Amendments such as Colorado’s to reduce them to simple expressions of non-neutral anti-Catholicism. Often they were that, but they were more.

To understand them merely in these terms—as lamentable examples of “discrimination”—domesticates them. It consigns them to a history from which we have happily progressed now that we have entered an epoch in which the making of discriminations of any kind is taboo. It puffs us up with the Whiggish certitude that to repudiate the Blaine Amendments is to rid ourselves decisively of the very real problem they addressed. That problem—how to foster through education the common civic culture upon which the American polity, even still, depends—does not vanish by easy, self-congratulatory resort to the voguish platitudes of antidiscrimination. The Blaine Amendments were woefully inadequate responses to that problem, but responses nonetheless. The empty bromide of religious neutrality is no response at all.

Around the Web This Week

Some interesting law and religion news stories from around the web this week:

Schmidt, “Cachita′s Streets: The Virgin of Charity, Race, and Revolution in Cuba”

In August, Duke University Press will release “Cachita′s Streets: The Virgin of Charity, Race, and Revolution in Cuba” by Jalane  D. Schmidt (University of Virginia). The publisher’s description follows:

Cuba’s patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, also called Cachita, is a potent symbol of Cuban national identity. Jalane D. Schmidt shows how groups as diverse as Indians and African slaves, Spanish colonial officials, Cuban independence soldiers, Catholic authorities and laypeople, intellectuals, journalists and artists, practitioners of spiritism and Santería, activists, politicians, and revolutionaries each have constructed and disputed the meanings of the Virgin. Schmidt examines the occasions from 1936 to 2012 when the Virgin’s beloved, original brown-skinned effigy was removed from her national shrine in the majority black- and mixed-race mountaintop village of El Cobre and brought into Cuba’s cities. There, devotees venerated and followed Cachita’s image through urban streets, amassing at large-scale public ceremonies in her honor that promoted competing claims about Cuban religion, race, and political ideology. Schmidt compares these religious rituals to other contemporaneous Cuban street events, including carnival, protests, and revolutionary rallies, where organizers stage performances of contested definitions of Cubanness. Schmidt provides a comprehensive treatment of Cuban religions, history, and culture, interpreted through the prism of Cachita.

Lee, “Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the Secular”

This month, Oxford University Press releases “Recognizing the Non-religious: Reimagining the Secular” by Lois Lee (University College London). The publisher’s description follows:

In recent years, the extent to which contemporary societies are secular has come under scrutiny. At the same time, many countries, especially in Europe, have increasingly large nonaffiliate, ‘subjectively secular’ populations, whilst nonreligious cultural movements like the New Atheism and the Sunday Assembly have come to prominence. Making sense of secularity, irreligion, and the relationship between them has therefore emerged as a crucial task for those seeking to understand contemporary societies and the nature of modern life.

Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork in southeast England, Recognizing the Nonreligious develops a new vocabulary, theory and methodology for thinking about the secular. It distinguishes between separate and incommensurable aspects of so-called secularity as insubstantial – involving merely the absence of religion – and substantial – involving beliefs, ritual practice, and identities that are alternative to religious ones. Recognizing the cultural forms that present themselves as nonreligious therefore opens up new, more egalitarian and more theoretically coherent ways of thinking about people who are ‘not religious’. It is also argued that recognizing the nonreligious allows us to reimagine the secular itself in new and productive ways.

This book is part of a fast-growing area of research that builds upon and contributes to theoretical debates concerning secularization, ‘desecularization’, religious change, postsecularity and postcolonial approaches to religion and secularism. As well as presenting new research, this book gathers insights from the wider studies of nonreligion, atheism, and secularism in order to consolidate a theoretical framework, conceptual foundation and agenda for future research.