Discerning, envisioning and empowering the way we work for justice within, among and beyond the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville

I am pleased to welcome as a guest to this blog, Rabbi Rob Cabelli, who, incidentally, will also be in our pulpit March 18.  If you are not yet aware of the ongoing discussion regarding Buncombe County Board of Education Policy 652AR and Policy 653, Rabbi Cabelli shares his thoughts.  I plan to attend the next BoE meeting on April 12 and stand in support of this important community issue. The letter is entirely written by Rabbi Cabelli, the bold sections are my emphasis.

Dear Friends

I know that all of you strive in your lives to further the cause of justice, of encouraging others directly and through the example you present to truly appreciate the value of every human being, every sacred life.  I know that you all “walk the talk.”  We have all lived through the on-going waves of “liberation” movements in America, movements whose eternal goal is to broaden and deepen the concept of liberty so as to make freedom a right and reality for all, rather than a privilege for some.  Racial equality, women’s rights, and equality for our GLBT brothers and sisters are all aspects of human rights, and we have all participated in and remain engaged in that seemingly never-ending struggle.

Equally important – and perhaps the other side of the same coin – in this struggle, is the challenge of tyranny, of what we might call the imposition of beliefs and practices by one on another.  In fact, the tyranny of belief underlies or is often used to justify the taking away of civil rights on the grounds of race or gender.  But perhaps you thought that tyranny on the basis of faith, religion or spiritual beliefs, at least, was no longer an issue, 220 years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights with its explicit first amendment rights.  Think again.

The foremost challenge that we, as members of the collective human race, face in the world for the foreseeable future, is conflict driven by those who feel compelled to impose on others their visions of life and their ideologies and beliefs.  War on the basis of religion and belief is a mantra for millions, and probably billions around the globe.  A virtual religious war is consuming our attentions in the 2012 Presidential elections.  We are struggling with the challenge of change, as previously homogenous societies experience a multi-cultural reality, and all the old shibboleths, all the assumptions that in reality contradict the theory of American Liberty, are now challenged.  We cannot remain on the sideline.  However well-intentioned the prosyletizing and fundamentalist zealot may be in his or her notion of concern for others, there is a very basic contradiction between the claim of liberty for all and the imposition of one’s beliefs and practices on others.  We all know the truth about “freedom”: if your freedom limits my freedom, or mine limits yours, then together we are not free.  Freedom is a negotiation, a reciprocation of respect, illuminated by empathy, self-restraint, and just law.

Our schools represent our greatest challenge and greatest glory in this realm of balance and freedom.  Our public schools represent our nation’s values and, as such, the imperative placed up the protection of our rights.  They can be a sanctuary, a place of safety, in which education in the ways of a complex world takes place, nurturing the growth of the human spirit, intellect, and body, or they can be a zone of quiet terror and discontent.  I grew up as the only student openly practicing my non-Christian faith in a high school of 2000 students.  The dedication of my teachers and school administrators, from first grade on, to creating a space in which we would all be free of coercion or bullying on the basis of religion, in which we could learn about each others’ faiths with respect, still amazes me to this day.  Of course, I grew up in Rhode Island, which, regardless of anything else, then celebrated its founder, Roger Williams, as the father of religious freedom in America.

But we live in a country in which the idea that the faith of a majority or a vocal minority and its beliefs and practices can and should be imposed on others is, despite the gains of the various human rights struggles of the 20th century, now gaining more, not less, currency.  Perhaps this comes, as many have suggested, as a reaction to the threat of change to the established order and its ways, the instinctive reaction of those who feel backed against a wall by a new incomprehensible world.  This is true in parts of the country, including our own, in which multiculturalism is being felt like a sudden shock to the system, as well as in places where we might have thought the issue was long since put to rest.  The balance between freedom to practice one’s religion and freedom from the imposition of religion by others has always been a necessary challenge in a democratic, multicultural society.  The twin clauses of the First Amendment were intended to create a zone of neutrality, with protection for all, in the public space, allowing complete freedom of religious expression to flourish in the only space in which it truly can for all: in private.  

Even as we go about our other tasks, our other visions of ways to make this world a better, fairer and more just place, please, I beg you, understand that we have a duty and obligation before us, that we dare not let go of, assuming the battle already won.  There are a great, great many human beings, people of dignity and good-will, who feel very much threatened by multi-culturalism, who are conditioned to view our schools and our freedom through a lens that almost unknowingly disregards the rights and humanity of those who differ from their own particular view of what is normal.  We must speak out.  We must try every means at our disposal to speak on behalf of equality and freedom for all, and to find ways to engage, to the very best of our ability, in communication with those who struggle to empathize with the stranger, the “other.”

The struggle for equality and civil rights is one struggle, with many different facets.

At the Buncombe County Board of Education monthly meeting on March 1, double the normal space was used, and yet there were people standing in the back and outside the door, because a newly crafted policy on religion on the public schools was on the docket.  A very large majority of the crowd present appeared to be in fervent opposition to a policy that sought to do nothing more than express the legally bound separation of church and state, balancing freedom of religion with freedom from the imposition of religion, embedded in our nation’s constitution.

A small group of us were vocal in the public comment phase of the proceedings, but some of the language and themes presented by others were extremely disturbing.  The vote by the Board was delayed yet another month, due to changes in the draft of the policy since its first presentation.  We know that the pressure on the members of the Board is severe, including personally directed threats to the re-election of board members voiced with anger in the public meeting

The proposed rules, Policy 652AR and Policy 653, establish for the first time that the Buncombe County Schools will operate in compliance with the Federally-mandated Separation of Church and State, that every employee in the entire system will be actively trained in this issue and in the means to achieve neutrality with respect to religion, that there will be an established process for communication between people at every level of the system in identifying difficult situations and making sure that proper assessment and decision-making is carried out, and there will be a clear policy, pursuant to the above, regulating what forms of materials can be brought into classrooms and onto school campuses and buildings. 

We support these policies – they may not be perfect, but the vocal opposition to them underscores that their essential thrust is on target.  But we know that the pressure on the Board is strong, and we need to be sure that our voices are heard.  And, frankly, that means in quantity as well as in quality.

We will be inviting Superintendent Baldwin and Chairman of the Board of Education Rhinehart to address an interfaith group, as the Superintendent did about a month ago.  But – unlike a month ago and unlike March 1 – we need your presence.  We need you to be present, constructively, in speaking on behalf of our values and the values of those who look to us for leadership.  And we need you to be engaged in communication, to every extent possible, with those who take a different view on this subject of religious freedom.

In a very real way, this is the first official attempt to directly face the issue of First Amendments religious rights in this place in which we live and call home.  It comes at a time when the underlying issues are of renewed and critical importance to our country and the future of the world.  It is, at its core, the same issue as those civil rights issues for which we all struggle.

Please be with us, when this meeting time is announced, and again next month, when the Board meets again, on April 12.

Rob

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Comments on: "A Letter From Rabbi Cabelli" (2)

  1. Jana Bowman said:

    I plan to attend. I was seriously disturbed yesterday when my son, who attends 7th grade at Valley Springs Middle School, came home talking about a lesson that his English class had. In the lesson, a current say situation was given, and the correct answer was to compare the plot to the crucifixion of Jesus. In order to get the correct answer, the student had to know the story of Jesus. This concerned me, and your letter gives me a clear way to follow up on this as well as other concerns about what is going on in our schools. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Clark Olsen said:

    Thank you for a deeply profound letter on an issue of fundamental importance to the future of our nation and the world. I intend to be there.

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