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I’m all Southern now. For proof, see last post, in which God and football are mentioned in the same breath.

Somebody emailed me to ask why exactly I’m not girding for battle over the inclusion of God as one of the four team values for my son’s public football league. Let’s suppose for a moment it was a serious question. When it comes to religious incursions into public life, how do you decide when to fight and when to let it be?

Since I edited Parenting Beyond Belief, I’ve heard stories of church-state violations that would make your fries curl: public school marquees with Bible verses, a public kindergarten teacher showing the bible-based Veggie Tales and reading from In God We Trust — Stories of Faith in American History, even a values assessment in a public high school that gave kids a lower values score if they didn’t attend church or believe in a “higher power.”

Like the aforementioned curly fries, some of these are small issues, some are medium — and some are SuperSize. To sort them out, it’s a good idea to think about why church-state separation exists. It does not exist to “avoid offending atheists.” Ed Buckner put it this way in Parenting Beyond Belief:

Many people do oppose separation of religion and public education, of course, but most do so because they lack good understanding of the principle and its purpose. The most common misunderstanding is that separation is designed to protect religious minorities, especially atheists, from being offended. Offending people without good reason isn’t ever a good idea, but that isn’t the point of separation. Separation is necessary to protect everyone’s religious liberty.

chac xib chacTHAT is what separation is for. If I tell you I’m in favor of putting God back in schools, half of my relatives would cheer — until I announce that it’s Chac-Xib-Chac, the Mayan god of blood sacrifice, who will be worshipped, and the Mayan creation story that’ll be taught as true.

Suddenly I’m no fun at all.

Likewise, if I said our prayers would be specifically Catholic — that we would pray to Mother Mary and invoke the name of Benedict XVI each morning, for example — there’d be Protestants laying bricks in the principal’s office.

Nobody understood this better than Southern Baptists at their founding. They were a tiny minority then, you see, and didn’t want some majority vision of God forced on their kids. Here’s Dr. Ed again:

The Southern Baptist Conference understood the point so well that it included separation of church and state as one of its founding principles. The Southern Baptists adopted, in their “Baptist Faith and Message,” these words: “The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work….The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion.” Only by consistently denying agents of government, including public school teachers, the right to make decisions about religion is our religious liberty secure.

But now that they’ve made it into the mainstream, why, they can’t quite remember what all the separationist fuss was about.

If I heard that a teacher at my kids’ school was advocating atheism — saying specifically that God does not exist, for example, and telling the kids they should believe the same — I’d be the very first parent demanding his or her head. Secular schools are not the same as “atheistic” schools. They are neutral on religious questions — and that, you careful readers of the Constitution will know, is the American Way.

Anyway, back to my boy’s football thing. Stu Tanquist (whose essay title I stole for this entry) offered a list of considerations in Parenting Beyond Belief:

When considering whether or not to challenge religious intrusion in our lives, there are many factors to consider:
• Is your child concerned about the consequences?
• Could your child be negatively impacted by the challenge? Might he or she be ostracized at school by teachers or students?
• If successful, how significant would the change be? Would it positively benefit other families and children?
• Could you and your family be negatively impacted?
• What are your chances of success?
• How much time and resources are required?
• Do you risk damaging existing relationships?
• Is this likely to be a short-term or long-term fix?
• Is legal action necessary?
• Are there other parents or organizations that could assist you?
• Are you bored? Do you really need the spice this will add to your life?
• Would it feel rewarding both to you and your child if you succeeded?

This list isn’t designed to spit out the “right” answer; it simply raises the right issues. “Damage to existing relationships” is unfortunate, but in some cases might be outweighed by “positive benefit [to] other families and children.” Read his chapter and you’ll see how Stu geared his own responses, sitch by sitch, as his daughter encountered religious incursions in her public education.

The most important point Stu makes is the importance of considering the child’s wishes. Pushing a point your child doesn’t want pushed might do far more damage to your parent-child relationship than the issue is worth.

In the end, the football thing was a no-brainer. Compared to the likely consequences — especially for the new kid — it just doesn’t matter enough. God is just being presented as a value — inappropriately so, yes, but the effect is mild. My boy isn’t being forced to pledge individual belief in God, as he was (repeatedly) in Scouts. And he’s less impressionable now, better able to think for himself, so I’m not concerned about him being unduly influenced by an admired figure like his coach.

There are certainly cases in which I would stand up — and have. This just isn’t one of them. I’d be interested to hear what you think about Stu’s list — if there’s anything you’d add or subtract, for example — and whether you’ve come up against separation issues and how you handled them.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.