on religion in public debates and specifically in middle school classrooms

Harvard Ed. School professor Meira Levinson visited the Summer Institute of Civic Studies yesterday and led us in a discussion of a case that raises two fundamental issues. Students were required to choose and implement a civic action project. An Orthodox Jewish 8th-grader chose as his project arguing against the Massachusetts gay marriage law on religious grounds, taking as a premise that homosexuality is immoral and citing scripture as evidence. The chief issues are: 1) the legitimacy of any religious arguments in public forums, such as deliberations in public school classrooms; and 2) the potential effects on any students who might be gay–in other words, the effects on inclusion and equity.

I am inclined to say the following. First, the school and its teacher should not be neutral about homosexuality. Gay students have a right to be included and fully respected in the classroom. The teacher should strongly communicate that anti-gay rhetoric is disallowed.

But there are several reasons to allow the religious student to argue against gay marriage on reasons of faith: 1) Gay marriage is actually a live debate in the legislature and the press, and students should learn to follow such debates. 2) Although a student does not have a constitutional right to say whatever he wants in class, it is good pedagogy to create free speech zones within social studies classrooms. 3) Other students will learn something about orthodox Jewish thought if he can speak candidly. 4) The student in question may learn from other students’ responses, and it is better that he bring his values into the classroom than to feel that he was censored there and continue to hold them privately.

I think that religiously-based arguments should be permitted in a classroom (or a legislature) and not rejected on the ground that they are religious. At the same time, I think anyone who brings religious arguments into the public domain can be required to defend them. If the religious student states, “God says homosexuality is sinful,” other people may reply that God does not say that, or that God does not exist, or that God’s word should not determine human laws. He cannot be permitted to close the debate by claiming that his identity generates his opinions, and therefore a critique of his opinions constitutes an unfair attack on his identity. He is entitled to have his identity as a Jew respected and to be fully included in the classroom, but he is not entitled to have his opinion about homosexuality respected by other people in the classroom. He should expect that it will be challenged.

I am proposing an asymmetry here. Being gay is an identity that must be accepted in a public school classroom; hence the teacher must be against homophobia and must favor inclusion and respect. Holding religiously-based, anti-gay opinions is not an identity but a position, and it can be challenged. (Yet being Jewish is an identity.) I recognize the problem: what counts as an “identity” and an “opinion” is contested and changes over time. But I’m sticking to my position. …

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.