Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Who's right?

Get ready for the court battle of the decade Clifton Park, because high-toned evangelic attorney Thomas Marcelle has his sights on you. And this time, he’s got the deep pocketed Alliance Defense Fund of Scottsdale, Ariz., to help wage a public crusade against the Shenendehowa and two other school districts across the nation for disallowing an in-school right-to-life protest by students.

In the Capital Region case, a 13-year-old student at the Gowana Middle School had planned to protest abortion by placing a piece of red tape over his mouth, donning a pro-life T-shirt and by passing out literature supporting the cause to his classmates. His principal ordered him to turn the shirt inside out, ditch the fliers and remove the tape, according to the law suit.

Not surprisingly, the case has struck a chord with the right-wing claptraps and religious freedom fighters. They say the actions of the principal represent a duplicity in the freedom of speech laws in today’s society; protests for peace and same-sex marriage are fine, but bring up good Christian values and the tone changes, the theory goes.

But in the Clifton Park case, there’s more than just free speech at play. There is quite an agenda that’s being exacted. And it’s being done at the taxpayer’s expense, receiving all the free advertising in the world by politicos who could care less about the real issue: where, if anywhere, does protest belong in public schools.

This is the message Marcelle is flagging. Although preceded by a long and storied history of bible slapping, he’s also top defense attorney who's stood steadfast in his support of First Amendment rights and constitutional freedoms, albeit a bit on the religious side of the spectrum.

“I take the viewpoint that the First Amendment should be interpreted very liberally,” Marcelle told the Times Union in a February 2001 interview. “I believe in more speech than less. To silence someone just because it’s a religious viewpoint does damage to the First Amendment, in my opinion.”

Marcelle waged his first noted battle such rights in 1999, when he took up the defense of Dan Marchi, a special education teacher for socially and emotionally disturbed high school students in the Capital Region’s BOCES. The teacher was suspended in 1993 when he began to integrate religious instruction in his lessons. District officials said he “modified his instructional program to discuss topics such as forgiveness, reconciliation, and God.” The court eventually affirmed the lower-court ruling, handing Marcelle his first big loss in defending religious freedoms.

But that was the extent of Marcelle’s failures when defending religious rights in public schools. He’s perhaps best known for his bid in in U.S. Supreme court, where he successfully argued for a Cooperstown-area elementary school religious group’s right to use their school's facilities for weekly late-afternoon meetings. In writing the decision for the 6-3 majority, Justice Clarence Thomas declared the club, which met immediately after the last class of the day, “simply taught morals and character development” much like the school itself.

Marcelle wasn’t alone in his fight either. He caught the eye and coffers of the Rutherford Institute, Virginia-based religious freedom group, which began funding his battles against the public school system. The following year, the Rutherford Institute backed Marcelle’s successful battle against the Saratoga Springs School District over a Dorthy Nolan Elementary student’s right to pray out loud during snack time. The 5-year-old kindergartener attempted to ask three of her classmates to say grace aloud before being told to refrain by her teacher.

Most recently, Marcelle won a seven-year federal case against a bucolic Oswego County school district, which prohibited students from placing bricks in school sidewalk that bore evangelical messages. The judge ruled the bricks, which contained messages such as “Jesus Christ the only way” and “Jesus Saves,” didn’t endorse a particular religious view by the district, therefore removing them would violate the rights of the people who paid for them during the fundraiser for the Class of 1999.

In the Gowana Middle School case, Marcelle’s admirable position as constitutional guardian is being exploited to bring attention to the abortion issue and to make a not-so-subtle political statement about the so-called left-leaning public education system. With the deeply-connected and conservative Alliance Defense Fund fueling the battle, it’s only a matter of time until the right-wing talking heads begin to twist and distort issue at hand.

Truth is, both parties seem a bit wrong in this case. Protesting is fine, provided you’re an emancipated individual who has the lawful powers to make life decisions. This freedom comes at one’s 18th birthday, at which time the nation views the individual as an adult and capable of their own destiny.

In the case of the 13-year-old boy, who’s name hasn’t even been released to the media, the right to protest runs no stronger than his right to watch television after school. When at home, his parents act as his decision makers; when at school, it’s up to his teachers to assume this role in absenteeism.

So if the principal says no, then like it or not, there’s no protest, period. And in a situation where the boy would be prevented from participating in or disrupting the educational process --it’s pretty difficult to answer a teacher’s question with a piece of red tape affixed to one’s mouth --there’s ample precedent for saying no irregardless of the cause.

Conversely, the principal showed a bit of lunacy in partially allowing the student to continue his “silent” protest, sans the tape and leaflets. Either let the kid wear the tape, or tell him to can it and hit the books like everyone else; there’s no sense in half-assing something.

All this will bubble to a head when the fair-and-balanced Fox News trailer pulls up to the middle school in a couple of weeks. Junior plans his second tape-wearing to mark the anniversary of Rowe V. Wade later this month, adding fuel to a fire that’s already creating too much smoke for this issue. Hopefully, Bill O‘Reilly will parachute onto the scene from a C-5 cargo plane and clarify everything before the district loses too much money.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting case. But the courts generally say, as you do, that if you're not an adult you don't have the same rights. Which is unfair for the kids, but is the way life goes. And thank goodness in this case: That kid's been filled with enough junk from his elders already. He doesn't need to have his opinion officialy sanctioned.

'Course if the kid passed out leaflets suggesting God didn't exist, I imagine he'd get beaten up, expelled and ignored. Wonder how Marcelle would deal with that one?

12:35 AM  

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