I’m generally a fan of Post and Courier columnist Brian Hicks. In fact, I wrote a column a few years ago praising his enlightened and compassionate views, views that are largely different from the harsh, right-wing rhetoric that has emanated for generations from the Manigault family’s dull, gray journal. In fact, in that February 2012 column I wrote that Hicks’ work “has been a breath of fresh air and good sense in that stodgy old institution.”
So I was surprised and more than a little disappointed when Hicks recently decided to use his column in a personal jihad against secular humanists. In two separate columns he went after humanists for intervening in a clearly unconstitutional collaboration of church and state in Dorchester County.
To recap the story: Students at Dorchester District 2’s Oakbrook Elementary School were collecting food and money last fall to support a food drive sponsored by Old Fort Baptist Church. No one disputes that it was a worthy cause for both the church and the children of Oakbrook Elementary. But sometimes even good intentions must be properly directed.
In this case, the school collection was a clear violation of the Establishment Clause, whereby governments and their agencies — that would be Oakbrook Elementary School — may not endorse any religion or creed. It is the same well-established principle that the U.S. Supreme Court enunciated in its famous “school prayer” decision of 1962, which declared that public schools could not sponsor nor endorse prayer.
It doesn’t take a law degree to grasp that this principle would also apply to a church food drive. I am surprised Hicks didn’t get it.
Several secular humanist parents of DD2 children took the issue to the American Humanist Association, which sent a letter to school district officials threatening legal action if Oakbrook Elementary did not cease collecting food and money for the church. The letter did not comment on the rightness or wrongness of food drives, and did not tell individuals they could not support Old Fort Baptist Church’s food drive. The letter was directed at blocking a public institution from using public resources to support a religious institution.
Of course, people were upset. Brian Hicks was one of them. In a Nov. 28 column he called the action of the American Humanist Association “malarkey” and “a frivolous lawsuit.” He even wrote, “Oscar Mayer doesn’t produce this much baloney on an annual basis.” Amy Monsky, president of Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, responded, chastising Hicks in a Dec. 3 Post and Courier op-ed. I guess this is where I speak up to say that I am a member of SHL, and I cheered Monsky through every paragraph of her column.
She pointed out that SHL is involved in a number of community service programs, including those that feed the needy. And she said that humanist parents — including the parents of DD2 children who first brought this issue to the public’s attention — teach their children to be good citizens and compassionate human beings.
Then she took Hicks to school on the Constitution: “Public schools are government institutions and must comply with the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. This means that schools and teachers must not promote or endorse any particular religion. While promoting charitable acts is noble, it is important that it is done in a way that neither violates the law nor disenfranchises any students.”
A few days later DD2 surrendered the point and agreed to direct its food drive efforts to nonsectarian public service agencies. A couple of fringe benefits of this little spat are that the DD2 students got a close up look at the way the Constitution, the courts, and the press work in a free society.
In response to the flap and all the name-calling, the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry put together an online fund-raising campaign for needy students in Dorchester District 2. At last count, they had raised more than $2,300.
As for Mr. Hicks, he wrote a follow-up column on the whole secular humanist controversy just before Christmas. This time his tone was much softer. Something or someone had gotten to him. Or maybe he had just taken a quiet moment to think the whole thing through. In his softer, wiser voice he conceded that there would have been a lot of angry parents if Oakbrook School’s children were supplying the food pantry at a mosque. Maybe there are better ways to do good than through religious organizations.
One thing we can all agree on: The same First Amendment which protects Brian Hicks’ right to publish his views also protects the right of secular interests to intervene when there is a clear mingling of church and state — no matter how minor. If the government were messing with his press freedom, Hicks would be the first to brandish the Constitution and demand his day in court.