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Magic Zombie School$

September 8, 2013

NYTimes “Tuition Aid From a Zombie Elf” By Brendan Spiegel is about grants given by Gamers Helping Gamers:

a nonprofit organization founded by a group of successful young New Yorkers to assist a very specific group of students: those who play the fantasy trading card game Magic: The Gathering.

The article profiles student, Douglas Johnson, who

began his sophomore year at the State University of New York at Oswego last week … with a double major in psychology and public justice … his family back in Watertown, N.Y., didn’t have to take out any loans this fall, thanks to a scholarship that covers about half of his tuition. And for that he has Glissa, the Traitor — a zombie elf — to thank.

This reminds me of the Zombie Apocalypse writing scholarship from ScholarshipExperts – that scholarship is available again for this year, and last year’s winner wrote in verse:

As we open the doors,
A breeze lingers through.
Zombies! They’re on the horizon!
Now let’s end this snafu!

The NYTimes article also reminds me of a great set of Federal Court cases regarding freedom of religion and Magic: The Gathering in public schools (also Yoga, Earth Day, Worry dolls, Lord Ganesha, Buddha, Quetzalcoatl and other issues). The case opinions will be included in the ZombieLaw case book because the word “zombie” was used in reference to the Magic card game.

The case, Altman v. Bedford Central School District, was first decided in 1999 by Judge Brieant of the Southern District of New York and then on appeal to the Second Circuit, decided in 2001, before Circuit Judges Walker, Kearse and Pooler.

The District Court opinion, 45 F. Supp. 2d 368, found some Constitutional violations by the school district but not as regard Magic: The Gathering:

The Court, like Dr. Dennis, finds the game of “Magic: The Gathering” somewhat arcane to say the least. It was first published nationally in 1993 by Wizards of the Coast, Inc., located, naturally, in California, and is now in its 6th Edition. Defendants’ Exhibit 1 is a game set for two players, which includes two sets of playing cards. One player is designated the Wizard Zakk, and the other Wizard Kazz. A player starts with the life total of 20, and wins the game when he or she has reduced the other player’s life to 0. There are other versions for multiple players, including 16 expansion sets and 6 versions of the base game.

Drawing certain cards allows a player to cast different types of “spells” including the ability to summon Sprites or a Unicorn. The directions for the resultant one-to-one combat between the players are both intricate and weird. To describe them would prolong this work unduly. The cards include graphic illustrations of zombies, goblins, a lost soul, eleven riders (mounted on wolves), “artifacts,” a sorceress queen, a wraith, an imp, murk dwellers, vampires, a wall of human bones, a whirling dervish, a unicorn, a skull, Pegasus, a grizzly bear and some other cards which are entirely free from references to the supernatural. No reasonable person could regard sponsoring this game as a teaching of religion.

Although it has been stipulated that “Magic: The Gathering” contains cards that are offensive to people of the Catholic faith, this Court declines on the totality of the evidence to find that the school district’s conduct was in violation of the First Amendment. The game is played with a large number of cards containing unrealistic fantasy representations, which are obviously fictitious and imaginary, but it is neither overtly nor implicitly religious. As the game itself is not religious in nature, Plaintiffs’ argument that the Defendants by allowing this extracurricular activity are advancing or promoting Satanism as a religion or the occult also fails, Furthermore, since participation was voluntary and permitted only with written parental consent, and not during school hours, this Court finds that the school district neither asserted coercive pressure for students to participate in the game, nor did it infringe on plaintiffs’ right to the free exercise of their religion.

Assuming, solely for the argument, that Magic: The Gathering” was religious in nature, the evidence shows, and the Court finds, that no reasonable observer or participant could believe that the school district’s actions communicated a message of endorsement of the beliefs, if any, contained within the game. To the contrary, the school district’s precautions to present the club as a mere extracurricular activity not endorsed by the school, but simply offered on school grounds not during school hours, is consistent with the Supreme Court’s decisions on the interplay between the competing principles of Free Speech, Free Exercise, and Establishment clauses of the First Amendment. See e.g. Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, 508 U.S. 384, 395, 124 L. Ed. 2d 352, 113 S. Ct. 2141 (1993).

The Second Circuit opinion, 245 F.3d 49, affirmed the lower court on this issue regarding the card game and “reversed insofar as it declared activities of the School District to violate the First Amendment”;

Magic: The Gathering (“MTG” or “Magic”) is a complex, strategy-based card game that was played by students in extracurricular clubs that met before school at Pound Ridge Elementary and after school at Fox Lane Middle. Each MTG player is a “wizard” attempting to reduce his opponents’ “life total” points from twenty to zero. By drawing and playing cards, players attempt to summon “creatures” and cast “spells” in order to reduce their opponents’ point total. The playing cards include depictions of zombies, goblins, vampires, and similar creatures. Students were allowed to participate in MTG only with prior written parental consent.

Plaintiffs challenged the School District’s endorsement and promotion of MTG, contending, inter alia, that the game glorified worship of Satan, the practice of witchcraft, and blasphemy against Jesus Christ, and that the sponsorship subtly coerced students into participating.

We have considered all of the parties’ contentions in support of their respective appeals. For the foregoing reasons the judgment of the district court is vacated insofar as it adjudicated claims challenging activities at Pound Ridge Elementary School and Fox Lane Middle School, and is remanded for dismissal of those claims for lack of subject matter jurisdiction; the judgment is reversed insofar as it declared activities of the School District to violate the First Amendment and granted injunctive relief and attorneys’ fees; and it is affirmed insofar as it dismissed other claims asserted by plaintiffs.

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