"Secular discussion of religious material is possible and rewarding," prize-winning student Connor Harris wrote, "but it requires teachers to be sensitive to constitutional concerns [and] their students' beliefs."
Harris was awarded the $1,000 first prize in the Ethel S. Sorokin First Amendment Essay Contest.
He and other winners were recognized at this year's Milton Sorokin Symposium by state Supreme Court Justice Richard N. Palmer.
The assigned topic: "Under what circumstances, if any, can the Ten Commandments or other sacred texts be taught or brought up for discussion in the classroom?" About 42 entries were submitted; most, as ACLU-CT hopes in sponsoring the contest, did homework on court decisions and referred to several of those decisions in elaborating their own views.
Harris drew on his own experience in a course called Literature of the Ancient World, which included religious texts such as the Old Testament and the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. The teacher's approach, he said, "helped us understand the Old Testament's origins and Abrahamic religions without ever pressuring us to adopt a certain religious belief."
The winner of the $500 second prize, Jennifer Hilibrand, also of Greenwich High, , took largely the same position as Harris, but argued that "the ‘wall of separation'. . . has severe shortcomings. Religion is deeply rooted within American culture, and may never be truly severed from the public educational system. . . . Instead of absolutism, an appealing criterion for determining the permissibility of religious content in the American educational system is coercive effect."
Greenwich High's Will Hallisey, winner of the $250 third prize, wrote that "I struggle with sanctioning religious text in the classroom. . . . [because] even if only reference, [it] introduces the discomfiting situation of a secular authority figure with a personal belief system, which a child can easily misconstrued. . ." He concludes that "while individuals' belief systems cannot be entirely absent. . . they must ultimately subjugate themselves to the Constitution's determination that God and Governance remain unlinked."
Runner-up Gabriel Borelli of West Haven High was awarded Honorable Mention and a signed copy of In Defense of Our America by Anthony Romero. Borelli concluded that religious texts may be discussed when relevant to a course such as anthropology, or in a "strictly neutral class such as global studies or world religions," or in a government class analyzing the "limits and boundaries of the First Amendment's freedom of religion in various Supreme Court cases."
1st Prize Essay -- Connor Harris
2d Prize Essay -- Jennifer Hilibrand
3d Prize Essay -- Will Hallisey
Honorable Mention -- Gabriel Borelli
Background and rules: First Amendment Essay Contest