I Pray That Sacrilege Is Protected

Rhode Island College received national attention recently when the student newspaper published a cartoon depicting Jesus as the perfect roommate complete with smelly feet, turning water into wine like a card-trick at the weekly keg party. Many people objected but the College was correct to say that they wouldn’t restrict the student’s first amendment rights.

At the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire, a Christian group was barred from discussing the bible in a dorm room. It’s ironic that in a country where the cardinal sin of state schools is saying prayers, sacrilege is still protected. How did this happen?

Long ago, a student was forced to salute the American flag in a public school. Being a Jehovah’s Witness, which forbids allegiance to political institutions or symbols, the student objected. The resulting Supreme Court case, West Virginia v. Barnette (1943), declared that the state may not restrict freedom of thought or speech and as such could not force the student to pledge allegiance.

In the Majority opinion, Justice Jackson wrote, “But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom… If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.”

Most of us find the “Jesus cartoon” childish, but it’s their right to be offensive. If students have free speech when it comes to callow cartoons depicting Christ, social work candidates at the school engaged in honest academic debate have not fared so well. This should come as no surprise to anyone who read the National Association of Scholars report, “The Scandal of Social Work Education,” released September 11, 2007.

The report is the result of extensive investigations involving the top ten universities and three student case studies. The openly expressed and privately enforced requirements of “social justice” highlight the institutional oppression of thought enforced via selective approval of first amendment rights.

Describing the breadth of violations, NAS president Stephen H. Balch remarked, “It is totally unacceptable for an academic discipline to load mission statements with question-begging concepts that preempt the discussion of unsettled questions, prepare students to become activists for particular causes, or require that students swear loyalty to creedal formulations in order to graduate. Social work education does all these things.”

A quick perusal of syllabi and intern contracts anywhere in the country reveals a required allegiance to programs that promote “distributive justice,” “economic justice,” and “redistribution of wealth and power.” So what happens when a student doesn’t believe this is the solution to poverty?

The answer to this question brings us back to Rhode Island College. Located within the NAS report is the case of a RIC student who held a conservative view of welfare. This master’s of social work candidate was denied the ability to study the “toxic subject” of welfare reform after he refused to lobby the State House in the school’s “perspective.”

Earlier attempts to introduce intellectual diversity also met with unabashed opposition. During one such exchange, Rhode Island College Professor Dan Weisman wrote, “I want to correct a perception you seem to have: the [School of Social Work] is not committed to balanced presentations, nor should we be. We are not a debating society; we are a values-based profession and we are responsible to promote the values that underlie social work.”

Ironically, again, the name Dan Weisman might ring some (prayer) bells. Mr. Weisman’s daughter was the student offended by a prayer at her graduation ceremony. The resulting case, Lee v. Weisman (1992), championed the removal of prayer from public graduations. Professor Weisman appears to believe that his own beliefs should never be offended whether they be about social policy or religion.

This brings us back to the “Jesus cartoon” – do we have the freedom to think and speak (and draw) as we please or has that right been interpreted to mean we are required to be free from offensive thoughts and words. And, as we see in Rhode Island, who decides what is offensive or toxic, be it religious or policy related, is the divine question.


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