Local school boards, which don't have enough to do in the eyes of some, may soon be asked to rise to Solomon-like levels of wisdom and undertake the task of defining something that has never been defined and that a great many sensible people believe may not even exist.
This turn of affairs is the result of an obscure section of the Education for Economic Security Act of 1984, which bars the use of federal magnet school funds for "any course of instruction the substance of which is secular humanism."
Barring the use of federal funds from a program or activity is by no means new, but it is usually used as a device to enforce compliance with certain national standards of conduct that have been reached through consensus and after long and vigorous debate. Hence, federal funds have been used as leverage to enforce civil rights laws and currently they are being used as leverage to force states to raise their drinking ages to 21. Money, the members of Congress know since they receive plenty of it themselves, talks.
So what, perhaps you are asking now, is "secular humanism" to come under such federal duress? It must be quite a menace to the Republic to be put up there on the same enforcement level with drunk driving and discrimination. Indeed, if those who would have us believe secular humanism exists at all had their way, we would all be convinced that secular humanism is a pernicious philosophy that, if left unchallenged, will poison society and everything it stands for to the very core.
The problem is, however, that secular humanism doesn't appear to exist. People for the American Way, a liberal organization formed by television producer Norman Lear to challenge the polemics of the New Right, (and doubtless a hotbed of secular humanists) has called secular humanism a hoax.
Nevertheless, the Department of Education has issued a proposed regulation that implements the prohibition against using federal funds for magnet school programs that teach secular humanism. But the regulation fails to define secular humanism, throwing that task right into the laps of local school boards.
Anthony T. Podesta, executive director of People for the American Way, has written the Department of Education to protest. "For years," he wrote, "nationally orchestrated Far Right pressure groups have used the hoax of 'secular humanism' to harass the public schools. Now, with a federal law that uses the term without defining it, the Department of Education is making local school districts even more vulnerable to attack from those who have a history of using the charge of 'secular humanism' to oppose anything they don't like about public education."
He offered some examples: In St. David, Ariz., a chapter of Eagle Forum -- the organization founded by Phyllis Schlafly -- showed a film on secular humanism, and the local school board ended up taking works of Homer, Hawthorne and Hemingway off required reading lists.
"In Lincoln County, Ore., funds for guidance and counseling programs were eliminated because they allegedly were 'part of the secular humanist conspiracy,' " he wrote.
"In Buffalo, N.Y., a child-abuse prevention and a sex education program are under attack for promoting 'secular humanism.'
Until recently, the only legal standing secular humanism ever had was in a footnote to a 1961 Supreme Court decision that included secular humanism on a list of religions that "do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God."
An aide to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who tacked the secular humanist ban onto the 1984 law, told The Washington Post that it was a "symbolic thing. It has put the federal government on record saying that federal funds should not be spent on propagandizing an atheistic philosophy to our kids. If Mr. Lear doesn't like it, tough noogies."
As elegant as that comment was, it doesn't resolve the problem. Podesta thinks the Department of Education with "its vast resources" ought to take a crack at defining secular humanism and setting a single national standard. That's one way out, but the federal government has never been much good at defining philosophies and religions, particularly those that might not even exist.
Perhaps the best way out of this is to ask Sen. Hatch for a workable definition and then incorporate it in the law. That should keep the senator busy for awhile, and in the course of it he might learn that ideological dictates to schools about what they can teach is a recipe for disaster.