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.