Editorial: Open Sesame Street


Let’s play “one of these things is not like the other.”

Here are five statements.  Try to guess which one does not constitute a religious belief: 

1. A serpent talks to people and unleashes evil on the world.

2. When you die, you get your own planet.

Advertisement: The Grande at Chesterfield

3. Little creatures stuck to the bodies of humans when an evil alien ruler set off hydrogen bombs next to volcanoes 75 million years ago.

4. Body modifications (piercings, etc) are encouraged and teach us about who we are and what we do.

5. A religious leader is beaten, dies, is put in a cave and three days later his body is no longer in the cave but people see him walking as if alive.

The answer? It’s a trick question, they all are. Allegedly, anyway. 

(1) is from Genesis and the Adam and Eve story (innocence sure didn’t last long, did it?). (2) is a somewhat simplistic interpretation of a Mormon belief. (3) is part and parcel of the Scientology legend of L. Ron Hubbard. (5) of course describes the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the New Testament.

But what of (4), which of you have heard of that one?  Well, if you’ve been reading the news over the past week, you’ll know that it relates to a student at Clayton High School outside Raleigh, North Carolina, who insists her nose ring is part of her spiritual belief.

Ariana Iacono and her mother Nikki belong to the Church of Body Modification. It exists (It must! It can be Googled!), claims 3,500 members around the country, has those who minister to the flock, a board of directors, and so on and so forth.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that all North Carolinans are buying it. So Ariana has been told she can’t wear her nose ring at school, as it violates a dress code policy of the district and does not fall within its accommodations for religious beliefs. And to no one’s great surprise, the Iaconos and the American Civil Liberties Union, are challenging the policy.

Do you think this is folly? Listen to what Raleigh-based minister of the church Richard Ivey has to say, according to the Associated Press: “Ivey describes the church as a non-theistic faith that draws people who see tattoos, piercings and other physical alterations as ways of experiencing the divine.

“We don’t worship the god of body modification or anything like that,” he said. “Our spirituality comes from what we choose to do ourselves.”

That may sound nutty to some, but on the face of it, would it be any stranger to an interplanetary stranger than the other beliefs described above? And certainly, Judaism and other religions have any number of rules and regulations about bodies: When you must cut them (circumcision); when you mustn’t (tattoos); what you wear next to them (phylacteries, Mormon underwear); on top of them (yarmulkes), wear over them (veils, burkas).

It would be one thing if the Johnson County district in which Ariana goes to school had an across-the-board policy and did not recognize any exceptions for religious purpose. The law generally acknowledges a need to balance educational decorum and regimen against full freedom of expression. But in this case, a distinction among religions was made-Iacono was told if she were Hindu or Muslim, there wouldn’t be an issue. So now the size of a religion dictates its legitimacy?

If so, we as Jews are in deep trouble, as there are world religions vastly larger than ours. So would it not be awfully difficult for us to make the case that Iacono and her religion ought not be protected?  You may have your own pride in Judaism and prejudice against what you consider a “contrived” belief, but one girl’s contrivance is another’s means of finding meaning in an oft meaningless world.

It’s not hard to imagine the slippery slope of religious profiling or prevention; it’s all around us these days.  Europe is currently undergoing its own repressive activities, believing that keeping Muslim women from voluntarily wearing ultramodest clothing will somehow suppress religious intolerance.  And many in America are actively engaged in stigmatizing Islam, failing to distinguish between everyday sorts of folks and religious fanatics.

It was only a few short decades ago mandated body inscriptions of yellow stars and identity numbers were reflective of the intent to eliminate a population of many millions. We’re certainly not likening Iacono’s case to the Holocaust. But we are suggesting that the smallest of disputes over religious freedom can inform much larger and more perilous movements.  This is why freedom from religion (the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment) works in tandem with what follows (“or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) to send a very pointed message to future generations – the government ought not be involved in discriminating in any way, shape or form among religious activities.