By Joseph L. Conn
Bart Simpson showed up at the Illinois legislature last week to lobby for character education in the public schools.
Well, not Bart himself. It was Nancy Cartwright, the actress who does Bart’s voice on the Fox cartoon comedy “The Simpsons.”
Cartwright came to the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee to tout H.R. 254, a resolution promoting “Good Choices,” a program affiliated with the Church of Scientology (of which she is a member). She denied that the program is religious, but conceded that it is based on The Way to Happiness, a book by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
According to the Chicago Sun-Times, other witnesses at the hearing said promotion of the church-related program violates the separation of church and state.
“The Way to Happiness is the Bible of the Church of Scientology,” said Rob Sherman, an atheist activist. “This would be no different than Francis Cardinal George coming here in and saying, ‘Well, we need character education so teach the Holy Bible.’”
If news media reports are accurate, the reaction of some legislators to this matter was deeply troubling. Some of them seemed more interested in having a celebrity appear before them than delving into the serious constitutional and policy questions at issue.
But at least a few legislators seemed troubled by the prospect of religious intrusion into the schools.
“I’m not arguing with their beliefs,” said Rep. Jerry Mitchell (R-Sterling). “When the man’s name [Scientology founder Hubbard] is on the back of the book… I’m not sure the public schools should be in the business of allowing that kind of relationship to be fostered.”
Resolution sponsor Rep. Dan Burke (D-Chicago) indicated he would rewrite the measure to remove references to the Scientology program.
That’s a step in the right direction. But I think legislators should tread very cautiously here. Public schools serve children from many faiths and some who follow no spiritual path at all. No religious tradition should be allowed to proselytize in our classrooms, directly or indirectly.
Frankly, this isn’t the first time there have been reports of Scientology outreach in the schools. A church affiliated anti-drug program popped up in California public schools a few years ago, and a Scientology-affiliated tutoring firm in Georgia has raised some parents’ eyebrows.
Religious Right activists relentlessly look for ways to evangelize in schools. I wonder what they think about letting the Church of Scientology do it? Somehow, I don’t think that’s what they have in mind.