Onomia, Oh My!

Today I visited Camp Onomia, one of the outdoor ministries of the ELCA, located just two hours northwest of Saint Paul in the Mille Lacs area. And I am so glad I did!

Camp Onomia is set on beautiful Shakopee Lake, and is surrounded by state park land. As you look across the lake, you don’t see other camp grounds or resorts or anything … just lakewater and trees. Standing in the middle of the camp, all you hear are children playing and exploring, and birds chirping, and squirrels scurrying. It is truly a beautiful getaway.

The center of the camp is a fire pit with a large concrete cross, where morning and evening gatherings can take place, and where the all-important camp fire burns at night. Surrounding the fire pit is a wonderfully shaded grove area with picnic tables and space for children to run and play. Lining this area are several camp buildings, including a chapel, a mess hall, dormitories, and the retreat center. Uniquely, this camp doesn’t have traditional camp cabins, but instead offers dormitory-style housing … something that family campers with young children, and those not accustomed to “more rustic” camping experiences, might really appreciate!

Amenities aside, I’m thrilled at what this camp can offer as a place of holy encounter – with God, with God’s creation, and with God’s people. Getting folks together for a weekend church retreat, or kids for a week of summer camp, can truly build relationships and nurture the gift of faith through intentional experiences of Bible study, prayer, and divine encounter in community and creation.

Camp Onomia, along with many of our Lutheran camps, has experienced some level of decline in recent years. Parenting styles have changed over the years, and fewer families are sending their children to “sleep-away” camp today than a generation or two ago. If parents are sending their children to camp, it is often for a specific skill – to help their children with soccer or music or art. Also, church finances are changing, and the ability of congregations and synods to fund camps, or for congregations to subsidize campers, has declined.

While our outdoor ministries may not see the enrollment numbers return to their heyday of a few generations ago, I know that I am eager to have my own children participate in summer camp at Onomia, and to see my congregation renew a relationship with this camp. Indeed, in talking with a few parents at my church, I know there is interest in this kind of ministry. There is incredible value in a fun, faith-filled experience of camp that is not skill-based or achievement-oriented, but focused on fostering a unique experience of Christian community and encounter with God.

Years ago my congregation sent youth to Confirmation Camp and other programs at Onomia, and I can see a new partnership with Onomia as a “back to the future” kind of thing … returning again to an experience that once nurtured the faith of our youth and church.

But this is not just “doing again” something we’ve tried before. Times have changed. More than even a generation ago, we live in an era when the formative experience of regular Sunday morning church is diluted by the many family, work, educational, and recreational experiences and responsibilities that demand the attention of our church members. In recent decades the definition of “regular attendance” at church has changed – from three times per month to once per month. Thus, the opportunity to establish strong church-based relationships and nurture faith through special experiences is one that all congregations should seize.

Many thanks to Camp Onomia Executive Director Jim Schmidt for showing me around the camp today. I look forward to more visits to Camp Onomia in the months and years to come … with my family and with my church, to draw closer to God and to each other in a setting that truly inspires awe of God’s creation.

Religious Groups on Campus: Christian Legal Society vs. Martinez

Earlier today the Supreme Court heard arguments in Christian Legal Society vs. Martinez, testing whether a school's nondiscrimination policy can result in barring a student religious group – which, by definition, is limited to people who share that faith – from receiving official campus recognition.  The case involved a student organization at Hastings College of the Law, the Christian Legal Society (CLS), being denied official status because it bars from membership homosexuals and those who practice or support premarital sex.  NPR has a nice review of the issues involved in this case here

In Sunday's Washington Post, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley writes that "[a] campus offers a cradle of free speech where students can form organizations that foster the exchange of ideas and values.  Supporting such groups should not be viewed as endorsing their beliefs but rather as encouraging associations."  Encouraging associations is a public good, yes, and should be a priority of any school's student affairs office.  But is it required of public universities, even in violation of other school policies? 

For the internal workings of the student groups, enforcing a nondiscrimination policy could wreak havoc on the group's identity.  Professor Turley wonders what would happen if schools enforced nondiscrimination policies on the internal workings of Orthodox Jewish or Wahabi Muslim groups.  The NPR piece asks what would happen if an environmental student group were forced to admit into membership students who denied global warming.

This case seems to be less about the free exercise of religion, and more about how public universities govern and provide material support for student life activities.  The Christians who formed the CLS continue to enjoy their Constitutional rights to free association and free exercise of religion, even though their group was denied official standing at Hastings.  Members of the CLS continue to be free to associate and organize and worship.  Nobody is prohibiting these students from practicing their faith.  Rather, the question is whether a school must extend the benefits of official recognition – including subsidies, priority use of campus facilities, and access to the school's email network – to groups that violate the school's nondiscrimination policies.

I'm ambivalent about this issue.  I don't think it is a bad idea at all for schools to support student groups, both those that are religious and non-religious, those that are open and those that have restrictions to membership.  However, I tend to believe it is a bad idea for Christian groups to seek official support or subsidy.  Religious groups are best when they are operated independent of governmental or other funding sources that don't share in its mission.

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Post Script:

From Turley's piece:

These conflicts are forcing courts to confront the reality that most religions are based on exclusivity principles and, to some extent, discrimination. Whether it is the chosen and the unchosen or the faithful and the infidel, religions define their members in part by the adherence to a set of moral strictures. In Matthew 4:4, Jesus says, in reference to the Old Testament, that "every word . . . comes from the mouth of God." That does not allow much wiggle room for many in tailoring their views to meet societal demands.

Professor Turley oddly interprets Matthew 4:4, supposing that Jesus' quote of Deuteronomy 8:3 – "one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord" – is a reference to the Old Testament as a whole, and thus an example of how religious groups couldn't be expected to "[tailor] their views to meet societal demands."  Jesus' words in Matthew 4 are not about the immutability of the Old Testament – and neither is the original text from Deuteronomy – but rather about the call of the faithful to depend ultimately not on material goodies but on the promise, Word, and will of God.  Turley's attempt to shoehorn this passage into some argument about the restricted membership and practices of religious groups is just odd.

UPDATE:

Howard Friedman of Religion Clause offers great links to briefs filed, opinion pieces, and background pieces about this case, here.

Moment of Silence in Virginia Schools

According to Virginia law, a school pupil's free exercise of religion within the schools is guaranteed by one minute of silence in the school day.  I'm no lawyer, but I am a pastor and a person of at least ordinary intelligence.  I have a hard time seeing how a minute of silence provides such a guarantee. 

Here's the code:

§ 22.1-203. Daily observance of one minute of silence.

In order that the right of every pupil to the free exercise of religion be guaranteed within the schools and that the freedom of each individual pupil be subject to the least possible pressure from the Commonwealth either to engage in, or to refrain from, religious observation on school grounds, the school board of each school division shall establish the daily observance of one minute of silence in each classroom of the division.

During such one-minute period of silence, the teacher responsible for each classroom shall take care that all pupils remain seated and silent and make no distracting display to the end that each pupil may, in the exercise of his or her individual choice, meditate, pray, or engage in any other silent activity which does not interfere with, distract, or impede other pupils in the like exercise of individual choice.

The Office of the Attorney General shall intervene and shall provide legal defense of this law.

[See also § 22.1-203.1. Student-initiated prayer; § 22.1-203.2. Guidelines for constitutional compliance for student prayer; and § 22.1-203.3. Religious viewpoint expression; student expression.  Also note that the minute of silence went from being "authorized" to being mandated in 2000.]

Notwithstanding the legal language above, a moment of silence guarantees nothing but silence.  I fail to see how the free exercise of one's religion is enhanced by the existence of this provision, or how it would be harmed if this provision did not exist.  And absent any reference to a pedagogical, social, or psychological purpose for this silence, it seems that this code is nothing more than an attempt to institutionalize a prayer-like form in the public schools.

But there's something more troubling than simply the state requiring a prayer-like exercise in schools every morning.  Indeed, whenever the state dabbles in religion it is often religion that (inadvertently, perhaps) gets the short end of the stick (see my post yesterday about how the scheduling of public school Spring Break during Holy Week limits participation in Holy Week observances).  The code claims that this one minute of silence guarantees the free exercise of religion in schools by pupils.  Surely a guarantee of the free exercise of religion is not anything that the state can cram into or limit to a minute of silence!  The code's enshrinement of a minute of silence as a guarantee of religious exercise actually does harm to religion by suggesting – in legal code – that the free exercise of religion is something that can be protected and "guaranteed" by (and perhaps limited to?) sixty silent seconds.

Religion is not practiced only through brief silent prayers or devotional activities, as important as these are.  The Christian religion, anyway, can be practiced during the school day in so many ways, including through acts of justice, a humble lifestyle showing respect for those in authority and the lowly alike, faithful service to neighbor, and dedication to one's studies.  These are practices of faith that we teach in our churches.  But the school, which has much more contact time with children than do most churches, perpetuates a narrow understanding of what it means to exercise one's religion through its mandated minute of silence.

I don't see why the schools need this minute of silence anyway.  Surely children and families can take a moment of silence to pray or meditate at home in the mornings or on the car drive to school, in the evenings or on weekends.  Why must this "need" be provided by the school system?  If the free exercise of religion is not really guaranteed by this moment of silence (as noted above), and if perhaps religion is harmed by this provision (as suggested above), why have it at all?

I wish the government would stay away from prayer and prayer-like practices, recognizing that private citizens can and will engage in religious and spiritual activities in their own manner, according to their own faith, and in community with others of their choosing.  We do not need the government forcing our children to observe a prayer-like activity in our public schools.