Litigation Over A School’s Name Change Displays Christian Nationalist Paranoia At Its Finest

  Ethan Magistro

Most of the time when social conservatives air their grievances about removing Confederate statues or renaming schools that honor racist figures, they are inspired by a sense of cultural resentment of changing times. A recent lawsuit filed by the Thomas More Society, a conservative law firm associated with the Religious Right, makes that resentment painfully obvious.

Canyon Hills High School, a school in San Diego, recently voted to drop the name Junipero Serra High School, after a student-led campaign called for a name change. Junipero Serra was a Catholic missionary in California in the 1700s and has a controversial legacy as a colonialist and abuser of Native Americans. In response, the Thomas More Society filed a lawsuit against the school on behalf of local residents. The lawsuit alleges that the renaming disfavors Catholicism and failed to follow proper procedures.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of this complaint, we should first remember that the Thomas More Society was deeply involved with Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election and that most of their election lawsuits were quickly thrown out of court. We ought to keep those embarrassing lawsuits in mind as we investigate this one.

Let’s first tackle their portrayal of Serra, who in 2015 was named a saint by the Catholic Church. You would think that a complaint that so aggressively argues that the school board misrepresented history by portraying Serra as a colonialist would try to be more evenhanded, but the Thomas More Society holds no bars in stretching the facts. The Society often claims the historiographical record holds Serra as a holy, unimpeachable figure, yet historians have been anything but conclusive on him. While Serra is acknowledged to have done some things right, he forced Native Americans to convert to Christianity and abused Native converts who rebelled. Serra was fundamentally a colonialist, a fact that one cannot historically argue against; he came to the United States under the command of the Spanish crown, and he operated his mission under Spanish control.

Another odd claim by the complaint is that removing a saint’s name from the school somehow violates church-state separation since the new name supposedly favors indigenous religion. But removing the name of a Catholic saint from a public school seems like something that would satisfy constitutional protections for church-state separation, considering that “Canyon Hills” (contrary to the complaint’s assertions that it’s an indigenous name) is based on the geography of the school’s region – an area with canyons that is occasionally referred to as “the Island in the Hills” – so, in other words, is an entirely secular name.

The Thomas More Society also seems to believe that picking a rattlesnake as the school’s mascot favors indigenous religion because the rattlesnake is “a sacred symbol” of local indigenous tribes. It’s quite unlikely that the school had any religious motivation in picking the new mascot; more likely, the school chose the rattlesnake because it is perceived to be a “fierce” creature, like mountain lions, bears, eagles, etc. (No one ever names a football team after, say, mice.)

But more obvious than the contradictions posed by The Thomas More Society’s lawsuit is the Christian nationalist animosity toward changing times and paranoia that their regressive view of society is being “persecuted.” It only takes two paragraphs for the Thomas More lawyers to dip their toes into right-wing culture wars:

“In the summer of 2020, Black Lives Matter protests and other demonstrations swept across the county, sparking an acute interest in Critical Race Theory and public erasure of symbols of colonialism – including Serra himself. Statues of Serra were defaced and attacked, and one of his churches was burned in an attack that represented animosity toward the Catholic faith and its role in California history.”

The inclusion of critical race theory in a case about religion seems abstruse, but it fits with the Society’s attempt to characterize the principal and school as filled with leftist radicals who are intent on annihilating Catholicism. Besides being a questionable legal maneuver, the mention of critical race theory, which every right-wing pundit is losing their heads over, and the hyperbolic threat of anti-Catholic “bigotry,” shows just how much paranoid politics drives the Religious Right.

 As easy as it is to disparage these folks for being nutty, it’s worth remembering that some of them have become genuinely convinced their livelihoods are being threatened by a shadowy liberal force manifesting itself in school name changes. That, of course, is no excuse for the harm they threaten against others based on their religious beliefs. But it is a reminder that the best way to counter right-wing fervor is to wield separation of church and state as a protective shield, not as a fiery sword like religious extremists are intent on doing.

Photo by Flickr user HarshLight.

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