Officials with the Juvenile Justice Department in Cameron County, Texas, appear to be confused about the proper relationship between religion and government.
A new youth outreach center has opened in Harlingen, and for some reason, officials saw fit to decorate it with slogans from a book penned by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology. Worse yet, the department’s director is under the impression that these slogans will help turn troubled young people into good Christians.
The Scientology slogans are raising eyebrows in Harlingen, reported the Brownsville Herald. The phrases come from a 1980 booklet by Hubbard titled The Way to Happiness, and Scientology backers describe them as non-sectarian and commonsense guidelines. But given that religion’s controversial image, others are not so sure.
Juvenile Justice Department Executive Director Tommy Ramirez Jr. insisted that the slogans are not meant to promote Scientology. Ramirez told the Herald, “There are no religions being taught, advocated, or preached by the Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department nor anyone associated with the department.”
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He added, “There are universal morals, values, good character traits being provided to the youth we are trying to rehabilitate. We have been using these tools for eight years as a means of changing the lives of the youth we serve and molding them to become good Christian citizens in our community.”
So, the department isn’t teaching any religion – yet its goal it to helping young people become “good Christian citizens.” And it’s using a Scientology book to achieve this goal.
It sounds like quite a mess to me.
There are a couple of problems here. Number one, while the slogans may seem innocuous, the people who use them and read Scientology books usually have one goal in mind: creating more Scientologists. No arm of the government should be helping out with that.
Secondly, it’s not the job of the Cameron County Juvenile Justice Department to turn youngsters into “good Christians” or “good Scientologists,” “good Muslims,” “good Buddhists,” “good Zoroastrians,” etc. Teaching these kids some life skills and values so they’ll stay out of trouble is a laudable goal. The county needs to find a way to meet that goal that doesn’t involve government promotion of religion.
Two weeks ago, my colleague Joe Conn wrote about an attempt to bring a Scientology-affiliated “character education” program to Illinois public schools. That program is also based on The Way to Happiness. I don’t think I’m being paranoid when I suggest that it looks like a coordinated campaign is under way to bring this book into public institutions. We need to keep a close eye on this.
The irony is that Scientology fought the Internal Revenue Service for years to win recognition as a religion. The group secured that designation but now seems to be arguing that some of its precepts aren’t really religious – they are just commonly held moral principles and are thus appropriate for public schools and other government institutions.
It doesn’t work that way. Religious groups enjoy many benefits, but they must also accept some curbs on their interactions with the government. If you’re a church, you can’t be religious one day and secular the next.
One final thought on this: Religious Right groups frequently insist that government needs God and assert that agencies should partner with sectarian organizations. They celebrate “faith-based” initiatives. I wonder what they think of this one?
P.S. A 1993 Newsweek article quotes a former Scientology official who refers to The Way To Happiness as a book designed “to make Scientology palatable to the masses.”