Saturday, August 11, 2012

Proselytizing art, music, and imagery...

The Seventh Circuit handed down what could be a major Establishment Clause case, Doe v. Elmbrook School District. The case involves a Wisconsin school district’s decision to hold public high school graduation ceremonies inside an Evangelical church sanctuary. Relying on three different tests found in the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence — the endorsement test of cases like McCreary, the coercion test of Lee and Santa Fe, and the no-proselytism test of Stone v. Graham — the Seventh Circuit ruled, en banc, that the ceremonies violated the Constitution. Here’s a good summation of the reasoning from the decision itself: “An unacceptable amount of religious endorsement and coercion occurred when the District held important civil ceremonies in the proselytizing environment of Elmbook Church.” [From Mark Mosesian writing for the St. John's University School of Law]

I am not at all sure how I react to the ruling itself but I find it interesting, to say the least, that the Court insists that the environment of Elmbrook Church was proselytizing.  As far as I know, the building includes a Latin cross, has hymnals in the pews, and perhaps some literature stuffed in the hymn racks (don't we all have this -- deliberately and accidentally as people leave their bulletins in the pews?).  So if the environment of Elmbrook Church is proselytizing, what might they think of Grace Lutheran Church of Clarksville, Tennessee, and its stained glass, painting, statues, paraments, Christus Rex and crucifixes, etc.???  Or St. Pat's in NYC?  Or one of the great Orthodox churches in our nation?

Back to my point... I am not sure that the Lutheran folks in our pews see the environment as proselytizing.  We have lived through generations of distance from and detraction of religious art and imagery and it has made an impact upon us in the pews -- but, according to the Seventh Circuit Court, the world still sees art, imagery, even hymns as proselytizing.  Well, good for them.  I wish we had such confidence in these church usages and ceremonies (to use confessional terms).  I wish we saw the great value and teaching role of this art, these images, and the hymnody (as well as their role in worship).  I wish we as Christians had such confidence in the power of images, art, and music to proselytize.  My great fear is that we do not have that kind of confidence anymore.  We tend to view these as neutral (at best) or negatively (at worst - especially when we think the Church should look as bland as the mall in order to entice people to come).

Funny, isn't it, how seriously courts take religious art, music, crosses, and statuary... and how casually so many within the church treat these very same things.  Just my own weird angle on this... You are free to have your own opinion.


Carl Vehse said...

The 7th Circuit Court's opinion (correct link) stated, in part: “An unacceptable amount of religious endorsement and coercion occurred when the District held important civil ceremonies in the proselytizing environment of Elmbook Church."

It would similarly follow that such public civil ceremonies cannot be held at facilities where an unacceptable amount of anti-Christian endorsement and coercion occurs in the proselytizing environment. This should include visible advertisements, endorsements, and coercions toward beliefs, views, or actions that are anti-Christian.

Thus, for example, patriotic display in the hallways of the facilities would not be anti-Christian, but displays promoting pro-abortion politicians would.

Missouri residents are protected better in that recently voters there overwhelmingly passing a state constitutional amendment, which states, in part, “no student shall be compelled to perform or participate in academic assignments or educational presentations that violate his or her religious beliefs.”

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't want Christian students to have their graduation at a mosque or temple of some other religion's temple, so this ruling is fine with me.

Of course, I didn't even go to two of my three graduations, so I can't speak for those who like those kinds of events.