Wednesday, November 24, 2004

University senate votes to delay vote on "service learning" issue

I had been intending to write more about the "religious service learning" controversy at UWEC this week, but Sunday's shooting incident took my attention away from it. The subject of the restrictive language added to the service learning guidelines was finally brought to a vote at yesterday's University Senate meeting, but the Senate only voted to move the topic to a different committee for further discussion.

The [chancellor-appointed] committee will be formed before the end of the semester, Chancellor Donald Mash said following the meeting.

It will be very similar to the service learning advisory committee, which has student representation, Mash said.

Once the committee develops a proposal, it will return to the University Senate floor, where it will be voted on and then sent to the chancellor for final approval, University Senate Chair Susan Harrison said.

I have been hearing all along that even if the University Senate approved the ban on religious service learning, the Chancellor--who seems to have veto power--would likely not approve it. And in fact, the Chancellor indicated as much in yesterday's meeting.

Mash opened the religious service learning ban discussion with concerns over the language of the ban.

"I would not be able to sign off on the ban as it has been proposed," he said, "and I wanted you to know that up front."

The opining on this issue in the Spectator and local papers has been interesting. If the letters to the editor are representative--and I don't know that they are--the objections to the ban are coming largely from the community and the student body. Which makes sense given that it is this relationship between students and community organizations that is being called into question. Meanwhile, the support of the religious service learning ban is coming mainly from university faculty. The student opposition to the ban has been better argued and supported than the faculty support, which has been steeped in emotionalism and simplistic, paternalistic arguments.

Here's one example: a letter to The Spectator, the UWEC campus newspaper, from Michael Fine, one of the political science profs.

As someone who suffered from beatings, ostracism and hate in my youth more than 40 years ago when we unfortunately mixed church and state in elementary school, I have hesitated to weigh in on the service learning controversy on campus. But with nearly 30 years at UW-Eau Claire, I feel the particular safety of the university is endangered by the proselytization of professor Kent Syverson.

Rather than consulting professor James Tubbs, the outstanding constitutional lawyer and scholar that we have on campus, Syverson refuses to allow Tubbs to speak freely to the APC, which Syverson chairs. Instead, he chooses to do his own, highly questionable constitutional analysis, guided only by that infamous right-wing organization that is a critic of most established U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the American Center for Law and Justice.

. . .

Let me just point out the simplest errors in his logic. Syverson claims the issue is about religious freedom and freedom of speech. No one is stopping anyone from proselytizing. The question is whether we should advance such activity by giving credit for it. By any theory of establishment, I know advancement takes place if we give "credit." By Syverson's logic, credit is not credit for anything. Should we give credit for nothing?

If freedom were at risk, this exchange would not be taking place. But the religions Syverson wants to advance are having little problem freely existing in American life. It is minorities' freedoms that are in danger from such "credit." Let me assure you, it is the other religions that have always come under the scrutiny of state-sponsored proselytizing. I would prefer to leave proselytizing to the churches, temples and mosques, as the framers of the Constitution chose to do.

But let's assume for a moment that Syverson is right and there is no constitutional prohibition against giving service learning credit for proselytizing religion. Even if that were true, I would suggest that it is still bad policy. The license to do something legally does not obligate us to make bad policy. If no advancement of religion is taking place by the activity, then what service is being provided?

If it advances religion, it is proselytization. If it advances nothing, then it isn't service. Either way, it should not be approved.

I don't know Professor Fine. I do know that he isn't arguing from case law here. Instead he argues from emotion. He talks of suffering "beatings, ostracism, and hatred" more than 40 years ago "when we unfortunately mixed church and state in elementary school," and by doing so suggests a repeat of such things. He says the "proselytization of Kent Syverson" threatens the "safety" of the university. (I'm not sure what he means when he says that Syverson "proselytizes." This issue isn't about whether the APC Chair spends time spreading the gospel.)

If this letter is to be taken as an example, the proponents of excluding religious service learning projects at UWEC argue from a very simplistic--and erroneous--view of the Constitution by which religion and public education must never be allowed within 50 paces of each other. Worse, they are guilty of fearmongering. The arguments presented by the ACLJ, they tell us, are suspect because they are from "that infamous right-wing organization." Furthermore, if UWEC allowed religious service learning projects--as it did for seven years--then, they tell us, safety is threatened and minorities' freedoms are endangered.

If this is true, then there must be some evidence of this having already happened during the first seven years of the service learning program when religious service learning was allowed. Show me the "dangers" and the "threats."

Rather than appeal to emotions and a simplistic understanding of the first amendment, the opponents of religious service learning need to do more than just shout "violation of the Establishment Clause" and dig the entrenchments deeper. How about some logical, reasonable arguments from case law precedent? The ACLJ--"that infamous right-wing organization"--can do it. Why can't System Legal? (Note: If they have, I would appreciate seeing the documents, but it appears that so far their only argument has been "because we say so.")

Here's one of the students' letters. I won't quote the whole thing because it's very long, but here's a portion:

The problem with this new restriction does not lie with the first half of the ban’s language. It lies with the second half. The instant that the Service Learning Center added the wording “since they are generally viewed as constituting a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution” this became a constitutional issue, not an opinion issue. There is one group in charge of interpreting the Establishment Clause, as well as the rest of the Constitution, and it is not Chancellor Mash, Provost Satz, System Legal, the Student Senate, or the University Senate. It is the Supreme Court. So what has the Supreme Court had to say on the matter?

The Establishment Cause is the first clause of the First Amendment, and states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” In order to decide issues about the Establishment Clause, the Supreme Court has created tests to determine a law’s constitutionality. Let’s just say that if this ban were a student at Eau Claire, it would be well on its way to probation with all the tests it fails. The traditional test is called the Lemon Test. Established in the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman, it has three prongs:

1) Does the law serve a secular purpose?
2) Does the law have a primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion?
3) Does the law create an excessive entanglement between government and religion?

The ban does indeed pass the first test, but fails the other two.

Read the whole letter, and note the difference. Many more letters can be found here and here.

Here's the irony no one's pointed out yet (as far as I know). If you're a student at UWEC, and you teach a class on Christianity for your service learning project, you will not get credit for it. But if you're a professor in the religion department at UWEC, and you teach a class on Christianity, you will get a paycheck from the state, and maybe even tenure.

I've written a lot about this issue, but rather than point to all the various blog entries, I'll point out a few starting entries here and here.


At 9:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why wasn't Professor James Tubbs alowed to speak @ this meeting? What happen with "free speach"?


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