Friday, January 23, 2015

The March for Life and the Limits of Religious Choice

I was on the subway yesterday on my way to an appointment. As I approached the platform, about to board the train, I noticed that at least four cars, maybe more, were completely full. Their contents were high school students, girls exclusively. By means of identification, they wore the same knit caps in purple and white. The word "Life" was prominently displayed across the brim, along with an acronym I didn't understand.

Through direct inquiry of one of the students seated nearby, I learned that they attended the same conservative Catholic school somewhere in Maryland. My first polite inquiry had been summarily ignored by an older male adult chaperon, perhaps a teacher, so I asked a teenage girl seated nearby for more information. Earlier during the day, there had been a large Pro-Life rally, the so-called March for Life. That was the reason for the "Life" designation on everyone's headgear.

I'm about as pro-choice as it comes, even referring to pro-life supporters as anti-choice. Though my libertarian father and I differ in many ways, his stance on abortion rights led him to be on the local board of Planned Parenthood for a time. This is to say that I don't understand the arguments made by those who would end legalized abortion. What mainly troubled me yesterday is that I find it distasteful when children, even older children like teenagers, are used as props to advance some greater ideological point.

One could even suggest that at fourteen or fifteen, kids simply aren't old enough to form their well-reasoned own political views. It took college for my nascent political consciousness to emerge, to question and weigh out the politics of my parents and decide what my own should be. It is said that a person's political views are not set into cement until around the age of twenty-four.  

A public school would not have been able to get away with a thing like this. Doing so would be asking for a lawsuit. Even if a minority group of students who identified as pro-life wanted to go on a trip to Washington, DC, to protest, I doubt the request would be granted. The only loophole I foresee was if the group agreed to not directly advertise the name of the school with which they were affiliated. This was not the case with the Catholic school I mentioned earlier.

Though they were cautious to not spell out directly the name of the school, even initials can be incriminating. This is what concerns me most. We're a nation supposedly built on the notion of a separation between church and state. But when it comes to schools with a religious bent, we allow these sorts of activities to proceed. The recent Hobby Lobby case is one such example and there are others yet to come.

I've never heard of a group of young Quakers enrolled in a Friends school that collectively headed to an anti-global warming rally or a pro-choice day of solidarity. Should I be wrong, I welcome anyone to correct me and I take no offense. If parents choose to take their children and their marching shoes to the streets, then that's a very different situation. If a minority group of students under the auspices of a school club wanted to attend, then that, too, is a different matter. But if the entire school was compelled to participate, or the event was a formally scheduled school event, the nature of the argument changes.

What I observed seemed more like a field trip than a group outing. The girls chatted casually with each other, but I didn't observe a kind of intensity of purpose that I do with many who consider themselves serious activists. They acted like students thankful for a day off from school. I've fallen into that category myself when I was that age.

Religious exemptions have always been a political hot potato. I'm sure that, in this instance, the private school in question was likely within its legal rights. What I object to is not so much the cause they support as the way in which they went about airing their grievances. Teenagers are still children, still very much minors. One of my major pet peeves is when I observe adults using kids for cheap emotional appeal. Whether they knew it or not, these students were representing a particular issue by virtue of their very presence.

I try very diligently not to force my religious beliefs down anyone's throat. The same is true with my political views. I enjoy pleasantly chatting with those who share a common cause with me, and I keep conversation at a surface level with those who do not. Many liberals have a kind of paranoia and hyper-vigilance when it comes to questions of whether they observe other people being manipulated against their will. Though it has basis in fact, these nagging worries may be little more than projecting. Some have even dismissed organized religion in any form as inherently toxic and designed to brainwash others. That's not necessarily so.

But I do think it's worth questioning whether the conduct mentioned above is acceptable. Should religious schools be allowed to take extremely partisan positions and involve minors in the process? As noted above, the cynic in me feels that teenagers might summarily dismiss the activity as harmless and quite perfunctory, rendering my anxieties needless. Even so, I know that the intention of this group trip is to reinforce a particular ideological issue, one in which I do not agree. I wouldn't want a pro-choice group of high schoolers from a Quaker school to participate collectively in a mass protest, either.

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