A couple of big First Amendment pretzels land on my desk this morning. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state—yum! Pass the mustard!
First, Black Hawk neighbor Mark Gavin is suing the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.* Gavin's beef: Mines won't let him walk around campus and shout praise to the Lord. Gavin wants to walk around the Quad and other outdoor areas on campus to spread the Gospel. Mines says no: like any other private party coming to campus to hawk its message, Gavin has to pay $50 and work from a table inside a campus building.
The Center for Religious Expression, the Tennessee outfit carrying Gavin's legal water, declares that "the Quad and the grassy area in front of the Surbeck Center... are uniquely suitable for his expression, appearing and functioning like public parks." On its website, CRE asserts in ironically faint font the following definition of the "public square":
The "public square" has both a figurative and literal meaning. It can be a street corner, a park, a sidewalk, a bulletin board, a blog, a break-room at work, a play-ground at school, an accessible outside area on a college campus, or an actual public square where you can put down a soap box and say your peace. Basically, the public square is any place where, as citizens, we have the freedom to walk and talk [Center for Religious Expression, "Get Informed," downloaded 2012.11.10].
The South Dakota Board of Regents begs to differ:
Institutional facilities and grounds embody investments by students and taxpayers to advance the educational, research and service missions of the institution. They are not open to the public for assembly, speech, or other activities as are the public streets, sidewalks, parks or seats of government [South Dakota Board of Regents, Policy Manual 6:13, "Facilities Use by Private Parties"].
The Regents allow campus officials to set up rules and fees for permitting private parties to assemble and speak on campus. But Gavin considers those rules an infringement of his right to free speech.
Gavin insists he's not seeking donations or trying to convert people... but are we really to believe that he wants to preach on campus just for the sake of hearing his own voice echo off the Surbeck Center? Give me a break: Gavin wants to take advantage of a target-rich environment assembled at state expense to advance his religion. He wants to use the state to advance his church, and that's a First Amendment problem.
Fly to the other pole of I-90 to witness another example of religious groups exploiting state resources. First Priority of Sioux Falls seeks to preach Biblical literalism to every student in Sioux Falls, which is sure not to sit well with the many Mormon students in Sioux Falls. First Priority conducts this outreach by, among other activities, hosting regular "Collision Cafes" at Sioux Falls' public high schools. First Priority hands out breakfast to students to "advance the gospel of Jesus Christ on their high school campus."
The collision here is between church and state. First Priority could conduct its activities in any number of private venues around the city that young people could freely choose to visit. But unsatisfied with those opportunities, First Priority takes advantage of a public venue, public high schools, where the state compels young people to go each day. Courtesy of the taxpayers, First Priority gains easy access to a captive audience to promote its specific religious message.
Both Gavin and First Priority are trying to take advantage of state resources and the students gathered thereupon for public education to promote private religious agendae. I understand their motivation: high school and university students are good targets for proselytization. They seek identity and meaning perhaps more avidly than anyone else. If you're selling the cosmic, teens and 20-somethings are your market.
But if you want to preach to that market, you don't get to take advantage of our public education dollars to do it. Mines need not sweat Gavin's lawsuit. The Sioux Falls School District might want to sweat this use of public resources to promote one narrow religious perspective.
* Editorial disclosure and disclaimer: I'm currently working on a web project for a research lab associated with Mines. As always, my speech on this blog has nothing to do with my affiliation with anyone writing me a check.