When free speech and common courtesy collide

  • Article by: SUSAN HOGAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 24, 2012 - 10:28 PM

The Coon Rapids rosary controversy primarily reflects a lack of the latter.

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Jake Balthazor started wearing a rosary in March to support his grandmother.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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Kelley Scott and Shannon Madison were stunned to hear news reports about a Coon Rapids High School student forbidden to wear a rosary for his ill grandma. They're the assistant principals who'd asked 15-year-old Jake Balthazor to either put the rosary in his pocket or tuck it under his shirt -- for safety reasons and out of sensitivity to Catholics.

"When I asked him why he was wearing the rosary, he said it was because he thought it was cool," Scott told me. "At no point did he bring up his grandmother or say he was wearing it for his grandmother."

Jake said he did tell them, but Madison, who was also in the room at the time, corroborated Scott's account.

After Jake and his family told their story to the media, the school was flooded with hostile e-mail and voice mail from around the country. People said the administrators had hearts of stone. They accused the leadership of quashing a student's religious freedom. Others said free-speech rights were being violated.

"Horrible things have been said by people who didn't have all the facts," Madison said. "It's a sad comment on society."

Jake told me that he occasionally attended Faith Lutheran Church in Coon Rapids but wasn't all that religious. He said the assistant principals told him the rosary was a sacred prayer tool for Catholics and not jewelry, but he didn't understand why he was supposed to care.

Because I'd been a religion reporter for two decades and a philosophy teacher before that, the religious sensitivity issues most interested me. Minnesota's students are more religiously diverse than ever before. While religious education may not be the role of public schools, fostering an atmosphere of respect is fundamental.

Most people of faith that I know wouldn't intentionally hijack the sacred objects of another religion and use them in insensitive ways. And, once enlightened, they certainly would stop. But, as Jake's pastor ---the Rev. David Doppenberg -- noted, young people are sometimes motivated by sentiment. Some seem unable to absorb the hurt or offense their actions may cause others.

"It's insensitive to wear the rosary, and I don't think you need to be insensitive to have free speech," Doppenberg said, adding that young people often mirror the cultural behavior of adults. He said we need look no further than the political paralysis created by legislators who do what they want without regard to the beliefs of others.

I spoke to Doppenberg after failing in repeated efforts to talk with Jake's parents. We agreed that it's no stretch to see how non-Catholic teens might confuse a rosary with the beaded necklaces with crucifixes sold at malls. Instead of a spiritual statement, these items have become fashion statements.

The assistant principals said they asked Jake to stop wearing the rosary as a necklace primarily for safety reasons. In early May, the Coon Rapids police department notified the school that two gangs were using rosaries "as clothing symbols." The notice, which I reviewed, also said that Catholics had made it clear that the rosary "is not appropriate to use as jewelry or dress."

That's why in meeting with Jake, the principals said, they brought up both points. That Jake was given the option of wearing the rosary under his shirt would still offend many Catholics, said the Rev. Dennis Zehren, pastor at Epiphany Catholic Church in Coon Rapids.

"We would never have a picnic on the altar used at a Catholic mass and we certainly wouldn't wear a rosary around our necks," he said. "We don't even have to tell Catholic teens that. It's intuitive. They know the rosary is something that should be used for prayer."

That view is largely true, but not universal among Catholics. Cesar Cruz, the youth director of Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Minneapolis, said that some Hispanic youth wear their rosaries at church. "We don't want them wearing them on the streets because of gangs," he said. "And we tell them it's not something to hang around your neck to show they're Catholic. They make rosaries here and we teach them to pray with them."

Rather than condemn the Lutheran teen's action, both Catholic leaders said they felt compassion because of his sick grandmother. Jake said she bought the rosary for him while they were on a trip to Mexico three months ago. He'd seen the rosaries and wanted one as a keepsake, and she made the purchase.

After hearing about Jake's grandmother on the news, Madison did what any compassionate school leader would do. She said she called Jake to check on him and his grandmother's health. Did the situation change her mind about whether he should wear a rosary? No -- and she's on the mark about that.

While for school officials the primary issue is Jake's safety, for me it's a little more basic. It's about respect for others -- a lesson Jake and his parents apparently still need to learn. Prayer beads are used in many religious traditions. A little sensitivity is in order.

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Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer.

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