RICHARD A. BAER, JR.Richard A. Baer, Jr., is professor of environmental ethics at Cornell University and a fellow of the Center for Public Justice in Washington, D.C. He contributed the chapter “The Myth of Neutrality” to The Blackboard Fumble: Finding a Place for Values in Public Education, recently copublished by Victor Books and Christianity Today.
Unless you are willing to risk job land reputation, there are certain terms—wop, hymie, nigger, Chink, to name but a few—that you simply do not use in public. (Just ask Jimmy the Greek or Jesse Jackson.) Attitudes toward racist and sexist language have changed enormously over the past three decades, and America is a better place because of it.
Given these circumstances, it is noteworthy that one unusually prejudicial term continues to go virtually unchallenged. It can be found on the lips of university presidents, politicians, and church leaders; in proclamations of the American Civil Liberties Union; and, most notably, in a number of Supreme Court decisions.
The term is sectarian.
That sectarian is hardly a flattering term is evident from even a cursory look at any standard dictionary. Among its more common synonyms are “bigoted,” “narrow-minded,” “heretical,” “parochial,” and “dogmatic.”
Given this range of meanings with their consistently pejorative connotations, it is disturbing to note that the mass media regularly use the term to describe and label individual Americans and groups of Americans. Even more disturbing, however, is its use by the U.S. Supreme Court. Since roughly the end of World War II, the highest tribunal of our land has used the term in a wide variety of cases as a synonym for ...1
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