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Are they taking the "play acting" lie one notch up?

When California schools had students take Muslim names and recite Muslim prayers as part of cultural education, the Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge on First Amendment grounds. Though I have not had a chance to read the opinion directly, summaries imply that the excuse given in the lower court ruling left standing was that the activities involved were mere simulations and that therefore the curriculum did not really violate strictures laid down by previous First Amendment jurisprudence.

One hardly needed to be a brilliant pundit to think of some obvious questions: What if they had been taught to memorize and recite the Lord's Prayer or the rosary? What if they had banners on the walls saying "Jesus is Lord"?

But matters in the world of liberal jurisprudence go farther than that. More recently there has been a disturbing extension of the claim that educational institutions may "compel speech" if they have a "legitimate educational purpose" in doing so. Briefly, a judge ruled that Julea Ward could be compelled to a) counsel homosexual clients and b) affirm their lifestyle in the course of the counseling as part of her practicum in a counseling program. The judge expressly cited a "play-acting" case in which the court permitted a state school to require a Mormon girl to utter obscenities and to take the Lord's name in vain in plays as part of her training as an actress. As I pointed out at the time, it's a very ominous extension to take a precedent in which a person was compelled to say things only as part of acting and to apply it to a case where a student is required to affirm things contrary to her own beliefs in real-life situations such as counseling. This would seem, I said, to mean that a school could say that it had an "educational interest" in compelling a student to attend a church and actually participate--genuinely as far as anyone could tell to the contrary--in the religious activities.

Well, we may have some more data on that...

A school in Wellesley, MA, took students on a field trip to a mosque. To be clear, the field trip required the permission of parents, so presumably the students could have opted out. However, if the field trip is deemed to have been legitimately educational within the ambit of previous First Amendment jurisprudence on the content of public school education, it is difficult to see why, legally speaking, a field trip of exactly the same type could not be required by a public school.

At the field trip, a mosque representative told the students how to say a Muslim prayer, after announcing that it was almost prayer time. Then the boys were herded away from the girls and into a room with the men, where they were filmed bowing together with the men and--to all appearances--participating in the Muslim prayers. It's worth noting that the representative's recitation to the students of the prayer and her connection of this with the upcoming prayer time could easily have given them the impression that they were being taught this prayer so that they, or at least some of them, could participate in what was about to happen.

The boys were filmed participating with the actual worshipers. So this is the question: Is the school going to say that the boys were simply overcome by spontaneous Muslim feelings after the presentation they had just heard or that, if any boys thought that they were required or expected to participate with the men, this must have simply been a misunderstanding? (Here's another interesting question: Would a group of observers in the prayer room have been permitted to stand up in the back while everyone else was bowing? It would look odd in any event. And why not leave the boys with the girls in the observation room if they, like the girls, were going to be mere observers?) Or will the school try to extend the "play-acting" excuse to actual bowing and prostrating in the mosque with the actual worshipers? If they do, that really belies the entire play-acting excuse. What it would mean is that, if a school decides to do so and can mock up some sort of "cultural education" excuse, it can require you to go to a house of worship and overtly participate in religious rituals with the bona fide worshipers, while claiming that you are only play-acting and that everyone should know this because...um...you're a visitor? You're there with a group from a school? Or does it not matter if anybody knows it? (Sounds like a scene out of a Borat movie.)

Now, of course, I don't actually know what the school is going to say. Maybe they'll just keep quiet and not say anything unless this is taken to court. I hope a parent of one of the boys sues them.

If they are allowed to get away with the play-acting excuse, this is really a reductio of the whole thing. Because even if we play along so far as to assume that you could do a public school "field trip" that involved attending a Christian worship service, we know that nobody would be allowed to take kids to a Christian church and to have them join in singing the hymns or taking Communion.

So I wonder, I do wonder, what line the school will take.

Comments (14)

I actually wonder whether, from the point of view of the State and for the purpose of the "play-acting" excuse, religious exercises will be held to have any real content at all that must be taken seriously. If not, any religious exercise whatever could be called "play-acting" as far as the religious content goes, because the religious content is (on that view) nothing but play-acting to start with.

This would still fall short of saying that schools may require participation in any religious exercise whatever—participation in fertility rituals, for example, would likely be illegal on other grounds. But it's certainly troubling enough to those of us who do take religious speech and actions seriously, particularly because—as you note—the "play-acting" standard as applied doesn't seem to have a very solid grounding in principle.


Perhaps American jurisprudence will soon treat all religion as "play acting." It has largely lost its ability to speak of religion as man's sacred and inviolable duty to his Creator.

Parents' desires are also seen as obstacles to students' self-development, so talk of parental rights has little hold.

Speculating about a school's rationale is less important than emphasizing the gravity of the school's actions. But if the ACLU won't get on board in opposing this, is there any way for opponents of this action to get traction in the public square?

"Now, of course, I don't actually know what the school is going to say."

I do.

"Superintendent Bella Wong says the trip was designed to allow students to visit a place of worship, not participate in a religious practice."

"In a letter to parents, Wong wrote:"

"It was not the intent for the students to be able to participate in any of the religious practices. The fact that any students were allowed to do so in this case was an error. I extend my sincere apologies for the error that occurred and regret the offense it may have caused."


"the students also visited a synagogue and went to see a gospel group sing as part of the social studies class."


Usually if negligence and stupidity account for things, that is sufficient explanation.

Ah, thanks for finding the letter, Al. I don't agree that negligence and stupidity account for it. Why were the boys separated and sent with the men at all?

And ain't it interesting that they went to listen to a music concert for the "Christian" part but went to an actual Muslim prayer service for the Muslim part.

The article misrepresents what I understood the video to be claiming. The video, as I remember it from just watching it this afternoon, does not say that the "women were asked to leave the prayer area." That would make no sense anyway, because the entire school group is not in the prayer area in the first place. It's in a kind of neutral space with chairs from which the men's prayer area is visible. It says that the boys were separated from the girls and that the boys were sent to the area with the men. Then the woman _witnessed_ (and videotaped) the boys actually bowing, etc., with the men. How they came to do so she leaves open, as she wasn't over there to see if they were guided into line with them or to hear what was said to them, etc. Obviously, that's the info. we need. If the boys were a) told to go over into the men's area and b) given the impression, verbally or non-verbally, that they were "supposed" or "expected" to join in what the men were doing, I think that might well be grounds for a suit, given that simply being expected to remain silent during a pre-football-game prayer was itself deemed unconstitutional in a different case!

Let's start a rumor: the mosque trip was sponsored by the Discovery Institute so that the students can hear a lecture by a mullah on intelligent design. This will result in the secularist's brain exploding, since love of materialism and Western self-loathing are usually not in conflict in culture war battles.

Remember: a woman only has a right to choose if it is an abortion and not a burqa. Theocracy is only wrong if it is construed as prayer in school rather than Sharia law. You can print "[edited] the Draft" on the back of your leather jacket in an American court room, and every liberal on the planet stands up for your freedom of speech. But change "[edited] the Draft" to "Sodomy is immoral" or "Muhammed is a false prophet," you've committed a "hate crime."

Liberalism is a despotic sickness.

"But change "[edited] the Draft" to "Sodomy is immoral" or "Muhammed is a false prophet," you've committed a "hate crime."

TA, you will, of course, be able to share with us the list of cases you used to come to your conclusion. I know you wouldn't just make something up and post it because it sound good. Perhaps you should read the recent posts by prof. Feser.

Lydia, my concern is with the appropriate use of public resources. Field trips don't seem efficient. Perhaps it would be better to have the various dispensations send qualified persons to the school. I say "qualified" because I believe that new converts (usually being more Catholic then the Pope) while being appropriate for a psychology or sociology class are unlikely to be of much use to a class in introductory religion.

I doubt there's a case as there is no evidence of an unconstitutional policy and everyone seems to agree the this was a screw-up. Polite and civil folk generally have a "when in Rome,,," as a default mode in these circumstances, but the instructor should have done her homework and thought ahead.

The gospel music thing also got my attention as did the others on the list. This gets us back to my problem with the field trips in general. In the time it took to visit one synagogue, for example, the class could have stayed in school and heard from a rabbi from each of the three main denominations. With Christianity the gospel group may have been an attempt not to favor one denomination; I would have have done it differently. Note also that while they talked with some Hindus, there is no mention of Buddhists yet all three main branches are represented in the Boston area.

Things like this are likely why folks get ulcers.

TA, you will, of course, be able to share with us the list of cases you used to come to your conclusion. I know you wouldn't just make something up and post it because it sound good. Perhaps you should read the recent posts by prof. Feser.

You will, of course, acknowledge that his point was based on seeing the behavior of many liberals in the past toward those things and thus is an extrapolation based on that.

"You will, of course, acknowledge that his point was based on seeing the behavior of many liberals in the past toward those things and thus is an extrapolation based on that."

No, but I will acknowledge that TA is likely a victim of decades of mis and dis-information on the right, a tradition that you are appairently happy to continue. I am unaware of any crimes in America that depend solely on opinion. If you are aware of any, please help me out. You are good at general statements that follow the party line, if you can't get specific perhaps I have a valid point.

I am unaware of any crimes in America that depend solely on opinion.

I'm a little punchy, today, but don't the "opinions" of the courts determine, in many cases, whether or not a crime has been committed?

The Chicken

If you are aware of any, please help me out.

Anyone familiar enough with the rhetoric of both sides has seen plenty of liberals who use that term to describe opinions and what they'd like to see happen through the law. You can read TA's opinion hyper-literally, as you are doing to avoid the bigger point, or you can apply more comprehensive knowledge of both sides to understand what he was really getting at.

"I am unaware of any crimes in America that depend solely on opinion."

If only opinions were held solely would you have a point. But, alas, they are not. They are held by flesh and blood human beings, whose "opinions" often arise from conscience in such a way that they cannot not believe them and act as if they are true. Hence, the "opinion" that every child by nature has a mother and a father and when they are absent their child is entitled to appropriate replacements (if possible) has been criminalized in Massachusetts. As you know, Catholic Charities has been forbidden under law from putting children up for option to only married heterosexual couples. In California, Catholic Charities must provide contraception in its employees health package, even though doing so offends the Catholic conscience. The state is making CC pay for something it believes is immoral. So much for "prochoice."

Al, liberalism in this day and age is intolerant, tyrannical, mean, and ignorant. What can say about a political party that bans from 5th graders happy meals but not happy endings, that knows the right temperature of the Earth but not the purpose of sexual powers, that treats pornography with greater deference than political speech? They're a bunch sick puppies, my friend. (Ironically, "sick puppies" stand a better chance with them than healthy human fetuses. Again, sickos).

Two thoughts here,

1. note that there is an overt act involved that would stand alone as criminal,

2. Volokh is likely correct that inserting content makes the whole thing unconstitutional which sort of makes my original point.

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