Americans have many rights and freedoms given to us by our Forefathers in the United States Constitution and continued in the First Amendment, written in 1791, of the Bill of Rights. One of those freedoms is our right to choose and exercise any religion without fear, interference, or persecution from our government. Over the years that right has been challenged again and again in our judicial system and has proven our laws to stand strong. “…yet issues involving government and religion are among the most contentious confronting us as a nation.” (Goldman and Kaufman xiii). It is not our government that is a potential threat to our freedom of religion, any religion our hearts and minds desire, but rather, conservative Christian groups and Christian activists fighting to keep their choice of religion in our children’s schools. (Marshall 1).
It is very simple. People, individuals, must be allowed to choose and practice their religion in any way they see fit and anywhere they want to, including and especially in our public schools. It is in school that children first learn strong foundational values such as freedom and tolerance. (Faith and Freedom 1). Individuals should be allowed to pray or worship and otherwise act on their beliefs no matter when it is or where it is. This includes the high school students who want to spend some time after class is dismissed for the day, sitting under a tree on the front lawn of their public school, and have a Bible study. This includes the one little girl who wants to bow her head and pray before she eats her sack lunch in the cafeteria of her elementary school. It includes the teacher who chooses to perform a heritage native dance in the parking lot of their school before entering the building to begin a day of lessons. And, it also includes any and all types of worship by Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Buddhists, Jehovah Witnesses, or Christians by whatever means that is. In America, everyone has the right to this freedom.
I am a Christian. I understand the fear and concern of taking prayer, and the posting of the Ten Commandments, and our Pledge of Allegiance (because it contains the word “God” in it) out of our schools. It may feel like or sound like our rights to a freedom to worship and praise our God is being unfairly violated. But the truth is, it’s not. Think about how one would feel if a prayer to Mother Mary was led in our children’s classrooms, or if the reading of the Koran was how their day started, or if a Buddha was set at the entrance of their school play ground and they were expected to bow before playing. Imagine how the children who are not Catholic or Muslim or Buddhist might feel. If we can understand that, then understanding why the children and their parents of these faiths or religions feel about praying to our Christian God, or reciting the pledge of allegiance, make some of these changes a little more acceptable.
“You will not find the word God in the U.S. Constitution…” (Harrison and Gilbert iii). I have read through it several times and find this to be a true statement. Our Constitution protects our right to religion, which for some, includes God, while for others, include a variety of titles given to their chosen deity. God is the name of the Supreme Being believed in by many Christian religions, along with religions such as Catholic, Jewish, and Jehovah’s Witness. It is not, however, known to those in religions including Muslim, Buddhism, and Hinduism, to name a few. And just as we have the right to believe and exercise any religion of our choosing, those who choose no religion at all, namely Atheists, also have the right to make that choice.
The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” The first part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” as outlined in the Establishment Clause, prevents Government from establishing an official national religion or showing preference of, or to, any one religion over another. The last part, “…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” is outlined in the Free Exercise Clause protecting Americans from Governmental interference of their right to exercise any religion they choose. (Harrison and Gilbert iii).
Many leaders have given their own interpretation of the religious clauses of the First Amendment over the years. James Madison wrote in a memorial to his fellow Virginians in 1785, “The Religion…of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.” (qtd. in Goldman and Kaufman xiii). A more recent clarification, and my personal favorite given by President Bill Clinton, states,
“Nothing in the First Amendment converts our public schools into religion-free zones, or requires all religious expression to be left behind at the schoolhouse door. While the government may not use schools to coerce the consciences of our students, or to convey official endorsement of religion, the public schools also may not discriminate against private religious expression during the school day… Religion is too important in our history and our heritage for us to keep it out of our schools…[I]t shouldn’t be demanded, but as long as it is not sponsored by school officials and doesn’t interfere with other children’s rights, it mustn’t be denied.” (Riley 1)
This statement was accompanied by President Clinton’s request that very specific guidelines be written for schools. The president’s request was made to the United States Secretary of Education, Richard W. Riley, who then wrote what is known as “Religious Expression in Public Schools,” and promptly distributed it to schools across America in August 1995. (Riley 1)
The “Religious Expression in Public Schools” covers many issues including student prayer and religious discussion, teaching about religion, student assignments, and religious literature. It even contains clear information about “student garb” which talks about what students may wear to school; displaying pictures or wording that is religious. (Riley 2) Unfortunately, not all schools take heed to following these guidelines. A 2008 high school student right here in Portland, Oregon was sent home on Halloween day for wearing a Jesus costume. The teachers said it was distracting to the classes, yet no one else’s costume seemed to have that problem. The school essentially prohibited his free exercise of religion and that was not only unfair, but unconstitutional as well.
Often when student’s religious rights are violated in school, parents step in and take these matters before the court. Engel vs. Vitale in 1962 was a Supreme Court case filed by the parents of ten students in New York State; in this case the Justices found that state sponsored public school prayer was unconstitutional. (Eastland 333). In 1985, Wallace vs. Jaffe, a case concerning schools requesting a moment of silence from their students for voluntary prayer or meditation, was also ruled unconstitutional. Justice Stevens said that the sole purpose, in the opinion of the court, was “an effort on the part of the State of Alabama to encourage a religious activity.” (Miller and Flowers 434) Years later in 1992, the rulings in Wallace vs. Jaffe were extended to a case in Rhode Island, Lee vs. Weisman, in which the Supreme Court found it was also not constitutional to invite members of the clergy to lead prayers at middle and high school graduations. (Eastland 439)
The Pledge of Allegiance is the most recent to go before the court. This pledge to our country does openly say “one nation is under God,” and clearly violates the Establishment Clause that states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” It shows a preference of one religion above most others. Yes, it is my religion; my religion of choice. And I am very grateful that I could make that choice of my own free will. I want everyone in this free country to have that same freedom of choice. I want us all to see how this freedom and the importance of sustaining it, is in the shoes of someone with a different religion than my own or theirs. I realize that our country was built on Christian values and now those values are essentially being threatened by respecting the values held dearly by those with vastly different beliefs, but I, as a Christian, can accept that others feel as strongly about their Supreme Being, and believe the teachings of their chosen religion as whole-heartedly as I do mine. I do not want that to ever be taken away from me and I, for one, will not be among those who try to take it away from other fellow Americans.
Eastland, Terry, ed. Religious Liberty in the Supreme Court. Washington D.C. Ethics Public Policy Center, 1993
Faith and Freedom: Religion in the Public Schools. 2001. 13 Nov. 2008 <http://www.adl.org/issue_religious_freedom/faith-freedom/faith_freedom_schools.asp>.
Goldwin, Robert Am, and Art Kaufman, eds. How Does the Constitution Protect Religious Freedom?. Washington D.C.: American Enterprises Institute for Public Policy Research, 1987.
Harrison, Maureen, and Steve Gilberts, eds. Freedom of Religion Decisions of the United States Supreme Court. San Diego: Excellent Books, 1996.
Marshall, Patrick. “Religion in Schools.” CQ Researcher 11.1 (2001): 1-24. CQ Researcher Online. CQ Press. Portland Community College S.E. Center library, Portland, OR. 10 Nov. 2008 <http://0-library.cqpress.com.library.pcc.edu:80/cqresearcher/cqresrre2001011200>.
Miller, Robert T., Ronald B. Flowers. Toward Benevolent Neutrality: Church, State, and the Supreme Court. Waco. Markham Press Fund, 1987
Riley, Richard W. “United States Department of Education-Secretary’s Statement on Religion.” 10 Aug. 1995. 13 Nov. 2008 <http://www.christiananswers.net/q-eden/religiousexpression.html>.
- Persecution of Religion in America (wordofpie.com)