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The Lost First Amendment

by HOWARD LISNOFF

Two bulletin boards are located at the entrance of a classroom building at the community college where I work in South Florida.  The first board is rather nondescript: it relates mundane information to students about subjects that don’t seem to catch the attention of passersby.  However, it is the second board that draws my attention, or rather, rivets it!

Large, in fact oversized stenciled letters proclaim:  “Faith Walkers for Christ.”  The first time I passed the board at the beginning of the spring semester I glanced at it, was mortified by such a blatant expression of religion, and then hurried on to the building where I teach.

Toward the end of the semester I wandered back to the building to examine the contents of the bulletin board more closely.  There seemed to be no direct explanation of the concept “walking” posted anywhere on the board.  One attachment on the board was an invitation to join a Bible study group dealing with a specific Biblical topic; on another, a student “pastor” was advertising a ministry; and on a third, indicating what room, day and time the organization met on campus.

I left the building distressed at the blatant expression of religion allowed, and perhaps encouraged, at an institution of higher learning, and at public one at that.  But, this is not where the torrent of religious messages ends on the campus where I work.

One of my supervisors occasionally wears scarves with clear religious messages printed on them.  I’ve seen two this semester: one read “I Love Jesus,” and the second had another message about Jesus that remains indistinct in my mind.  A coworker informs me that she complained in the past about the same supervisor.  That supervisor posted the message “Jesus Saves” on the wall of her college office.  The supervisor was forced to remove that message from her office wall, but according my coworker the supervisor has the right to wear statements about religion on her person.

In the religiously charged atmosphere where I work, one supervisor is not sufficient in terms of religious expression in a public place.  A second supervisor has a framed sign in his office that reads, “Faith, Family, Friends.”  While less noxious than the supervisor described above, this allusion to religion strikes me as equally inappropriate in a public college setting.

Part of my job requires me to edit and assist students with their class writing assignments. Early in the semester I began to see a trend among many students who brought essays and other class assignments to me for review.  Much of the work contained decidedly religious themes.  Among the topics that occurred again and again were ones involving sexual abstinence, anti-abortion, and the inculcation of a fear of God either in the writer or someone who the writer of a particular paper knows.  I am struck by how dogmatic these essays are, and find myself repelled by their themes at a very basic level!  It becomes difficult to work with some of these students in an objective manner, given the strident religious themes they present in their work.

As the semester nears its end, I review a fairly complex paper that is a critique of a book about Western European explorers “discovering” an indigenous tribe in South America, and how the two cultures interact with one another.  I find it most curious, during a discussion of the student’s reference material relating to religious perspectives on the topic, when he informs me that he feels he must be careful in his analysis of religious themes in the work since his “professor is a very religious person.”

Although I attended a college that was run by a religious denomination, I never felt that anything I wrote was ever subjected to a critique on either religious or philosophical grounds.  Nowhere on campus was there ever any posting of themes with religious content. However, that was during the 1960s, a much more tolerant and inclusive era in regard to divergent points of view.

Since the administration of Ronald Reagan, the pervasiveness of the religious wing of the political Right has increased geometrically.  George W. Bush solidified the gains of the purveyors of religious intolerance in both 2000 and 2004!   The working environment I face in South Florida is a direct result of the destruction of the wall between church and state in the U.S.

HOWARD LISNOFF is an educator and freelance writer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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