Glee and Separation of Church and State

By Nate Hennagin

Last Tuesday, the show Glee on Fox aired an episode titled “Grilled Cheesus.” In the episode, Finn makes a grilled cheese sandwich in which he sees a burn mark that he believes resembles Jesus. As a result, he comes to school that day and declares to the Glee Club that he has embraced Jesus and Christianity and requests that the club dedicate a week to religious and faith-based songs. Meanwhile, Kurt‘s father has a heart attack. He, therefore, is struggling with the near-death experience of someone he loves, as well as his own feelings on the non-existence of God. The experiences of these two characters spark some interesting debate on religion. In addition, because the Glee Club is a class in a public school, it is no surprise that some important church-state issues arose.

  1. Respect for religion or non-religion. This was a topic that was touched on in the episode more than a few times, although they were not always good examples of respect. When the students who are religious all make comments about their own personal religions and faiths, there is generally a mutual respect for everyone. However, when it comes to Kurt’s confession that he does not believe in God, the other students don’t show him the same respect. It is important to understand that all faiths and none are equally protected by our Constitution. Beyond Constitutional protections, we should treat people of other religions—as well as those with no religion—with respect.

    Another misstep happened when Finn assumed that the hospital nurse was Muslim when in fact, she was Sikh. This shows how many people have relatively little understanding of minority religions. In order to fully respect others’ religions, we must learn about some of their beliefs and traditions.
     
  2. Standing Though not specifically a church-state issue, standing is an issue that arises in legal matters dealing with church-state issues. In order to file a lawsuit in court, a person must prove that he or she is injured. Once you show that injury, you have standing. So, when Sue wants to go to the school board to complain about the faith-oriented songs in the glee club, she does not go on her own and reaches out to Kurt to go with her. The understanding here is that Sue isn’t the injured party because she is not in the class and subject to the religious assignment. If they were going to a court rather than just the school board, Sue would have no “standing to sue” (no pun intended). Rather, a student who is in the class must be the one to make the legal complaint.
     
  3. Religion in the public schools. This clearly was the most important issue that was brought up in the episode, due to the fact that it is a public school. In addition, this was probably a point that was not wholly presented correctly. The issue arises when Finn suggests a week devoted to religious songs after his grilled cheese-induced epiphany. When Mr. Schuester, the teacher of the class, tells them that it can instead be about “spirituality” and not specifically about Jesus or religion, there is a bit of an uproar. Sue Sylvester even brings the teacher into the office saying “have you never heard of separation of church and state?” The principal responds that students should be allowed to profess whatever religion they want, in which she retorts “at the BET awards, but not in a public school.”

    To clarify this issue, we have to look at the details of the situation. In fact, Sue was correct in her objections. Even saying that the assignment is to sing about spirituality, as opposed to religion outright, is a problem; the assignment must be secular. Instead, a more proper assignment would have been for Mr. Schuester to require a song about how they were each feeling about Kurt’s dad. Essentially, schools have a responsibility to keep control of expression of religion in regards to any curricular activities. Not only must teachers, administrators, and other faculty refrain from expression of religion in public schools (as they are publicly funded employees), but student assignments also must remain secular in nature because mandatory attendance creates a captive, more easily coerced audience.

    For an example of religion being portrayed in the correct way, we need to look at the scene where Mercedes asks Kurt to go to church with him. This is a perfect example of a permissive discussion of religion among peers: they are doing it on their own time, outside of class, and voluntarily.