Not so strange bedfellows

firstamendmentRecently we've discussed the penchant of reporters to talk politics in religion stories. A good example of that reliance comes the New York Times' Linda "I am the Alpha and Omega of all things factual" Greenhouse. Published in Sunday's paper, she anticipated Monday's Supreme Court hearing on a free speech case. Greenhouse, who is a very talented writer, sums up the background of the case well:

On the surface, Joseph Frederick's dispute with his principal, Deborah Morse, at the Juneau-Douglas High School in Alaska five years ago appeared to have little if anything to do with religion -- or perhaps with much of anything beyond a bored senior's attitude and a harried administrator's impatience.

As the Olympic torch was carried through the streets of Juneau on its way to the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake City, students were allowed to leave the school grounds to watch. The school band and cheerleaders performed. With television cameras focused on the scene, Mr. Frederick and some friends unfurled a 14-foot-long banner with the inscription: "Bong Hits 4 Jesus."

The student, who was suspended, didn't consider it religious expression but obviously the case may be decided in a way that influences religious expression. So a number of groups have gotten involved. This is very interesting and newsworthy -- and Greenhouse gets into that later on. But note her lede:

A Supreme Court case about the free-speech rights of high school students, to be argued on Monday, has opened an unexpected fissure between the Bush administration and its usual allies on the religious right.

The Bush administration entered the case on the side of the principal and Greenhouse is surprised that the religious folks are on the side of free religious expression. This isn't a terribly well-known case for a general audience. Why is the political angle more interesting than how the case came to be viewed as a religious expression one? I also suspect that the arguments that united the various free speech and religious folks might have been a better way to begin.

As always, Greenhouse does a nice job of summarizing some previous relevant decisions. But she says the way the sides are lining up is most interesting:

While it is hardly surprising to find the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Coalition Against Censorship on Mr. Frederick's side, it is the array of briefs from organizations that litigate and speak on behalf of the religious right that has lifted Morse v. Frederick out of the realm of the ordinary.

The groups include the American Center for Law and Justice, founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson; the Christian Legal Society; the Alliance Defense Fund, an organization based in Arizona that describes its mission as "defending the right to hear and speak the Truth"; the Rutherford Institute, which has participated in many religion cases before the court; and Liberty Legal Institute, a nonprofit law firm "dedicated to the preservation of First Amendment rights and religious freedom."

I guess I'm not that surprised. That Bush would be on the side of the manthe school authorities is not the most shocking thing in the world but it is somewhat surprising. Fleshing out the administration's views would have been worthwhile. What isn't surprising is that folks who work for free religious expression would be on the side of a student with dissident views. First Amendment cases always have far-reaching consequences and this would be no exception.

I don't mean to overstate things -- there is always something interesting about the bedfellows for each side in a Supreme Court case. But I'm not sure it's shocking to find all these Christians fellows in this bed.

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