Readers of major national papers like The New York Times or The Washington Post might have spilled their coffee as they scanned the paper on the morning of Jan. 16, 1967. Nestled amongst news of turmoil in Algeria and China’s maneuverings on the Vietnam War was a small headline of three simple words: Legalizing Marijuana Urged.

Morgan Morel
Imran Syed

It referred to the infamous Michigan Daily editorial that this page has trumpeted enough over the years. It pioneered a position that the Yale Daily News would take 10 days later, The Daily Cardinal at the University of Wisconsin a month later and that a good part of the Left would one day advocate: Criminalizing marijuana makes it easier to manipulate for profit and therefore more of a threat to society than it ever would be if legal.

Maybe that makes sense, or maybe it doesn’t. What’s interesting is that this page and the decided Left don’t advocate such pragmatism on other issues. The latest in Time magazine’s recent anything-but-war cover stories reawakened one such issue: teaching the Bible in public schools.

Of course, this debate is invariably clogged up by demagoguery on either side, each as disingenuous in its rhetoric as the other. The religious Right will rail all day about how the definite majority of Americans profess belief in God, but easily overlooks the fact that millions of those people are Jews, Muslims, Hindus and of other religions who believe the modern Bible to be a perversion of God’s word at best.

No better are those who advocate a completely secular education. They’ll keep a straight face as they tell you creationism doesn’t belong in the science classroom because it isn’t science, and you’ll believe them. They’ll advocate teaching that side of the story in theology class, and you’ll think that sounds about right. But consider the fact that only a miniscule percentage of American schools offer theology, and you might understand the real motive at work.

“Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion.”

So according to Madison, Congress can’t mandate prayer in school or profess a preference in religion. For a nation as disparate as ours, that makes perfect sense. But consider for a moment the dangers of treating religion like a controlled substance.

As with marijuana, banning something doesn’t make it go away. Instead, it creates a proverbial black market of religion in schools. Laws are made, challenged, overturned or upheld by the gross every year. It seems like at any given time, some school district on some edge of our vaunted shores thinks it has the magic bullet to pacify the establishment clause.

What it really has is another not-so-nuanced plan to offend the spiritual sensibilities of a sizable number of people – the founding fathers probably included. The Time article rattles off several examples: Georgia now provides state funding for classes that teach the Bible, several states are considering following suite and at least a couple of publishers are busy at work designing Biblical texts to confound current case law on the subject.

Ploys, dodging and disagreement all around. Is this really how we want to deal with one of the most pervasive issues in our nation’s history?

We can no longer ignore the fact that there are differing opinions on this issue. In the American system, most of them cannot be constitutionally suppressed. It’s time for atheists to realize that the majority of this country believes in God, and has the right to. Equally, it’s time for the majority of this country to realize that atheist views are to be equally protected as their own.

We can no longer ignore the fact that making religion a controlled substance is actually what makes it a threat. Liberals know that enforcement-centered policies make the drug war a lost cause. Now apply that logic a little more broadly.

The idea of religion is a fact of life in our society, even for those who choose not to practice one. It is important that it be addressed openly in our schools. Not only would that minimize conniving attempts to skirt the law, it would also ensure that all sides are heard fairly.

A specifically defined curriculum in the various forms of theology and atheism is the only way to mollify this unnecessarily inflamed debate. By trying to create a vacuum completely devoid of religion in schools, what we have created instead is a largely neutral system all-too-prone to decidedly unconstitutional infiltrations.

Odd though it may sound, the only way for the government to truly prevent the establishment of any one religion is not by banning everything but by ensuring all views on the subject are openly heard.

Imran Syed is the editorial page editor. He can be reached at galad@umich.edu.

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