Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Sunday, August 10, 2003  

Should states be paying for college students to study religion? How about theology? It's likely to be a decision that the Supreme Court will have to make.

On July 21, Judge George Caram Steeh of Federal District Court in Detroit issued a preliminary ruling in her favor, saying the state had probably engaged in religious discrimination. Judge Steeh ordered the state to put her scholarship money in escrow until there is a final court ruling.

A case much like Ms. Becker's from Washington State will be decided by the United States Supreme Court in its next term. A trial in Ms. Becker's case has not been scheduled and may never be needed; the Supreme Court case will probably effectively decide hers as well....

The Washington case is in some ways the narrower one. The State Supreme Court interpreted theology to mean "instruction that resembles worship and manifests a devotion to religion and religious principles in thought, feeling, belief and conduct."

In Washington, then, teaching about religion as an academic subject, as opposed to religious teaching meant to inspire devotion, is fine.

As a graduate with a B.A. in religious studies, I have some interest in this case. I think Washington's interpration is right on. The discipline of religious studies is a pedogogically accepted one, and a legitimate part of the humanities. Like the other departments in the humanities, religion is a filter. From my alma mater, the department's description:

...the study of religion is defined as a field of investigation distinct from religious practice. The program gives students the opportunity for critical reflection on a variety of religious traditions in the world, including their own. Students read the texts and examine the practices of both Western and Eastern religious traditions in the social and historical context in which they originated and in which they are now practiced. The field of religion is broad in content, not only because of the variety of religious traditions in the world, but also because religion has pervaded nearly everything else in human experience. Linkages with these other dimensions of human experience are systematically explored in order to understand the role religion has played and continues to play in every society.

The study of theology, on the other hand, necessarily involves supporting and promoting a particular religion. From the Harvard Divinity School mission:

Its purpose is to educate women and men for service as leaders in religious life and thought--as ministers and teachers, and in other professions enriched by theological study.

The argument can be mad (and, obviously, has) that state or federal money given to a student to study theology violates the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment. I'm not totally sold on that point, but I can definitely see the argument. To identify religious studies as an establishment of religion, however, is to misunderstand what the instruction is. No doubt I'll be writing more about this.

posted by Jeff | 9:11 PM |
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