Case in Point Jan/Feb 2024

January/February 2024
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“Speech Climate” On Campuses Declines

Recent clashes between pro-Palestinian students and those supporting Israel—as well as a sharp increase in reports of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia on American college and university campuses—are fueling a national debate about free speech. But according to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), on-campus free speech problems were already deeply entrenched well before the start of the Israel-Hamas conflict.

In a 2023 nationwide survey of more than 55,000 college and university students, FIRE found that many students would be comfortable censoring speech they disagree with. In response to questions about who should be invited to speak on campuses, up to 72 percent of students opposed allowing a conservative speaker on campus (depending on the topic) while up to 43 percent of students opposed allowing a liberal speaker on campus.

According to the survey, the most difficult topics for students to discuss on campus are abortion, gun control, racial inequality, and transgender rights. Forty-nine percent of students said they have difficulty on campus discussing abortion. Many students reported self-censoring, with more than half expressing worry about damaging their reputation because of someone misunderstanding what they said. Forty-five percent said it is acceptable to some degree for students to block other students from attending a speech, up from 37 percent last year.

Of the 248 schools ranked for the health of their speech climate, 73 were “below average,” “poor,” “very poor,” or “abysmal.” Just 47 have at least “slightly above average” speech climates. Occupying last place in the rankings was Harvard University. First place was taken by Michigan Tech.

Texas School Boards Debate Chaplaincy Law

More than 1,200 Texas school districts are struggling to determine their response to a state law passed last year allowing unlicensed chaplains to be hired as K-12 school counselors. The law doesn’t specify whether these chaplains should have mental health training, but instead obliges each school district to vote on its own chaplaincy requirements by March this year—a process that is generating fiery debates at local school board meetings. In August 2023, following passage of the controversial law, 100 Texas chaplains signed a letter saying that hiring chaplains without professional training could be harmful to students. Others, including the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, have called the law “government overreach into spiritual matters,” saying that public schools are “not the place for religious instruction.”

Questions Over Same-sex Unions Roil Denominations

In Britain, the question of “disestablishment” of the Church of England is again on the table. In December, a bill presented to the upper chamber of the British Parliament—the House of Lords—calls for a complete separation between church and state to better reflect the nation’s religious pluralism. The Church of England is seen as out of step with British society, especially over its reluctance to perform same-sex marriages, which have been legal in Britain for a decade. The Church of England has recently begun a new practice of offering prayers of blessing for same-sex couples, a move its critics say still falls short.

The question of same-sex unions was also addressed in December by the Roman Catholic Church. A statement from the Vatican announced that priests can now bless same-sex couples as long as these blessing are not part of regular Church rituals or liturgies.

In the United States, one in four United Methodist Church (UMC) congregations have left the denomination in what Christianity Today calls “the largest U.S. denominational schism since the Civil War.” Some 7,659 congregations have split from the UMC over a four-year period prompted by disagreements about same-sex relationships and church authority.

A Milestone for International Human Rights

The international community has marked the 75th anniversary of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948, after prolonged negotiations among member states. It enshrined 30 articles upholding fundamental freedoms, including the freedoms of thought, religion, speech, and peaceful assembly. Although it is still considered a benchmark expression of international human rights, the Declaration has long been criticized as remaining merely “aspirational.” In the area of religious freedom, for instance, studies by the Pew Forum show that some two-thirds of world’s population live in countries with high or very high levels of either governmental or social restrictions on religious expression or practice.

And Finally

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who died December 1, 2023, wielded significant influence as the Court’s “swing vote” during her 24 years on the bench. In her interpretation of the First Amendment’s religion clauses, O’Connor contributed to a loosening of restrictions on indirect state funding for religious K-12 schools. She also developed the so-called “endorsement test” for establishment clause questions, based on the principle that the government cannot support a particular religious viewpoint. One of her more memorable comments on religious freedom jurisprudence came in a 2005 case striking down courthouse displays of the Ten Commandments. She wrote: “It is true that many Americans find the Commandments in accord with their personal beliefs. But we do not count heads before enforcing the First Amendment.”