Culture Society

Pierce County’s Kneejerk Xenophobic Desire to Keep Religion Out of Schools

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In the early 90’s, a school district in Colorado Springs sent a letter to the parents of its high school students. It simply stated that in the month after the letter was sent, the high school was planning on holding what it called an “Alternative Lifestyles Week,” a week in which the students would be introduced to people from the Springs who led lives that were different than most in the school. The planners had simply intended to expose kids to the fact that there were people in the world who weren’t straight, white, or mildly affluent; that this notion is okay and it’s best to get used to that fact. The curriculum included a section devoted to the Wiccan religion, and another to homosexuals.

Outrage. Anger and high dudgeon abounded. Concerned parents wailing about “how dare they expose the children” to such deviant people, and claiming that while the school district said it was hoping to “increase awareness and sensitivity” in the students’ minds, their real goal was to weaken the moral fabric of the community, etcetera and so forth. The hoopla garnered the attention of Focus on the Family, then a fledgling organization that moved to the city not long thereafter; they, in turn, threw in with the parent of a student at risk of having his morals sullied (also the local owner of a car dealership with extra cash to throw around) and created Colorado for Family Values. This group went on to push to pass Amendment 2, an anti-gay rights initiative that passed in the 1992 election that was later deemed unconstitutional, first by the Colorado State Supreme Court, then by the US Supreme Court.

The whole affair is not remembered as one of Colorado’s finer moments, and the entire fiasco was fueled by concerned parents’ hate and phobia disguised as concern over what was being taught to their children. It is difficult to not notice the parallels to the story, reported by KOMO News, about another group of concerned parents who are objecting over a proposed school program with similar aims at creating awareness of an oft-maligned minority group: Muslims.

There are a number of differences between the two instances, the first being that it isn’t the school district looking to teach kids about the Islamic faith. Instead, it’s the local arm of the Council On American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) that is seeking to come into the schools and teach about Islam. CAIR came under heavy scrutiny during the George W. Bush administration for some fairly controversial statements and having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent organization to Hamas. Those ties were later deemed to have nothing to do with terrorist activities, and the statements were no more controversial than anything said by the Anti-Defamation League at its most militant.

Not that it seems to matter to those concerned parents in Puyallup, who feel free to bring up references to 9/11 and claiming that CAIR is a front that funds terrorism to support their prejudice. The other difference is the way these xenopobic statements are being framed as an objection to having religion being taught in schools, which is somewhat canny — what reasonable PNW progressive wouldn’t object to having religion taught in schools? As KOMO paraphrased one parent, “[…]religion has a time and place, and school is not it.”

But that falls apart when one looks at the specificity of their objections. That same parent also said, “Muslims are welcome here, but if you’re going to be here, you get in line and become American first,” that she doesn’t “want any part of the Muslim religion taught in her daughter’s public school,” and asked “How did you feel Sunday, on 9/11? I spent the whole day in tears, and its been 10 years[….]” Then a member of the Pierce County ACT for America weighs in with:

“For America’s sake, we don’t think that it’s fair that Islam gets a pass and the other religions don’t, but also because CAIR is a front for the Muslim brotherhood. We have a real problem with organizations with ties to terrorism that come into the public schools.”

It’s as if they believe that CAIR is going to come in and brainwash their children into believing in the Koran in a subtle and complex Islamic Extremist plan to replicate the movie Red Dawn or The Manchurian Candidate using far more insidious means. That somehow, by having CAIR come into the schools and saying “hey, Muslims are people too” an entire graduating class would become Walker Lindh clones, and then it’s a hop, skip and a jump into having Sharia Law on American soil. Regardless of what one may think of CAIR and their value as an organization, they claim that the reason behind their proposal to create this program in the Puyallup schools is an increase of bullying aimed at Muslim students.

One wonders at the effectiveness of such an approach, but given the calm but misplaced reaction against it as portrayed in the KOMO News story, it puts that desire in a favorable context. Just like nobody was planning on building an actual mosque at Ground Zero, no matter how much right-wing media said it was the case, there is no one is seeking to turn little Johnny into a suicide bomber.