Keeping The Faith … To Yourself

Born out of recent tensions in Florida schools, the question of whether or not religiously affiliated groups should be allowed to spread their respective words on K-12 campuses has been raised once again. After the World Changers of Florida (a group with a Christian background) revealed plans of distributing bibles to students at local public high schools, a central Florida chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation fought for permission to make materials concerning atheism and agnosticism available in the same school districts. The only condition put on both groups is that the distributions must remain “passive,” and that the volunteers associated with the two groups are not to encourage or pressure the students.

Now, here’s where the real question comes in: should faith-based solicitation, passive or not, religious or agnostic or atheist, be allowed in K-12 schools at all? I believe that the answer to this query is a pronounced and unwavering NO. No, high schoolers should not have to pass a table of Bibles to get to their lockers. No, middle school kids should not feel discomfort at turning down a brochure (and, in fact, may not understand that they have the right to do so).

No, elementary school kids should not sidestep the volunteers of a secularist group on their way to the playground.

Whether the representatives plan to sit stone silent at their display, give a heated speech in the middle of a crowded cafeteria or not be present at the table at all, the presence of a religious group of any kind in any capacity should not be felt on the campus of a public K-12 school. Who, exactly, thought it was a good idea to sell religion to kids who are too young to pack their own lunches?

Having faith or belief from a young age is not something to be discouraged or repudiated, nor is it what I’m addressing. What is disconcerting about this whole thing is the vibe the volunteers of religious groups seem to give off, a feeling I can only describe as “judgmental aggression.” I don’t want to generalize here; I’ve been approached by religious advocates who have been very respectful and with whom I’ve had insightful conversations. But seriously: when you walk by a display and there is someone behind the counter staring you down (be it a religious volunteer with pamphlets at a school or an employee at Jamba Juice wielding free samples in a mall food court), you can’t help but feel a little intimidated.

This brings me to my next point: “passive” distribution? Seriously, Collier County School Board? By its very essence, the distribution of a material of any kind is a form of encouragement. Let’s go back to the Jamba Juice employee: when she hands you a little cup full of smoothie with a smile and a promotional spiel, is it because she thinks you look thirsty? No way. It’s so that you, in your shopping-induced haze, will feel compelled to throw down five bucks for some fruit and ice. Replace the sample with a religious text and the overpriced smoothie with a commitment to a certain faith, and you’ve got yourself the sales plan of our Florida faith-based groups.

Now, I think something everyone can agree on is that faith is a very personal thing.

Although you may be of a popular faith, the way that you believe is different from the way anyone else does. So, why do we even stutter when groups like the World Changers of Florida or the Freedom from Religion Foundation ask to turn faith into a choice to be made in public? Spirituality — whether you have it or not — should be practiced in the privacy of your home, your place of worship and your own heart. Faith is, historically, an institution that is meant to bring people together; however, if we let it, it will continue to be something that pits people against each other and tears us apart.

Cheyda Arhamsadr is a first-year English major. She can be reached at carhamsa@uci.edu.