Is religious freedom provision understood???

January 3, 2009

(Copyright 2009)

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think when someone laments that “they won’t let children pray in public schools,” or “they’ve taken God out of the schools”, that is a false notion.

It is my understanding that no one is prohibited from praying in school, but public school authorities are prohibited from leading that prayer. I think there also is a caveat to prevent prayer activity that might be disruptive. But certainly a personal silent prayer done at a time and place that does not interfere with anyone else would not likely fall into that category.

I think that some people just don’t want to accept that the First Amendment of our Bill of Rights provides for freedom of religion by denying the government the power to establish an official religion or the power to prevent the free exercise of religion, as well as providing for free speech (and some folks have problem with free speech, as well).

The First Amendment reads:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

As I understand it, for instance, a school child could pray by his or her self in a way that would not be disruptive to others, and there is no authority to stop that. On the other hand, if a teacher or other school official were to lead in prayer that would amount to the sanctioning of religion or a type of religion, as in establishing an official religion. And certainly anyone could see that with all the different religions (and even atheism) and the various denominations in those religions, it would not be wise for school authorities to put their mark of approval on any one single form of practice. You can hardly have freedom of religion if official authority is leading you in the practice of a religion.

And then there is the ongoing question of whether religious groups can meet at public schools. I don’t know the precise status on all the legal rulings on this and I don’t want to get into all the legal research.

But the idea of religious clubs forming at public schools is what brought this topic to my mind. I read in my morning newspaper some man (and woman)-on-the street responses to the question:

“A California court this year will decide whether students can form a Bible club at a public school. What do you think?”

I’ll give the responses and then my response to the responses:

A student: “I think they should have the option to form one if they want, but I don’t think it should be mandatory.” That’s probably closest to what I think, but not so much in a legal sense. Certainly they could not be mandatory, otherwise we’re back to state-sponsored religion, and as we know, some nations have that – Iran anyone? Iraq anyone? for that matter.

An equipment mechanic: “I think they should have one. I think it’s very important that they have that in schools.” So this man, as I would imagine a lot of folks are, is in favor of Bible clubs for students. He does not address the fact that what he thinks might not be what others think, and he does not address what the First Amendment says (but, then again, no one else did either).

A retired teacher’s aide: “I believe they should have the same access as any other group that wants to form a club. I don’t think they should be denied access.” I kind of feel that way too. And the U.S. Supreme Court majority did hold in 2001 (Good News Club vs Milford) that a school could have a religious club because to not allow such would be counter to the First Amendment’s free speech clause. And to me it seems it might be argued that it ran counter to the clause against the government “prohibiting the free exercise (of religion)…” But that’s just me.

An apartment manager: “I think it’s great. They should be able to form any club they want to. There should be teacher coordination with that too.” I’m not at all sure what he means by “teacher coordination”, but certainly that sounds wrong, because then we are mixing government and religion, contrary to the First Amendment.

A student: “I am not against it. I think students should form clubs as they see fit as long as they don’t break any school rules.” Well that seems reasonable.

A food service worker: “Yes, absolutely. I think you should be able to.” Thanks for your input.

So there you have it. No atheists, heretics, or antichrists in the bunch.

Irrespective of the constitutional aspects, I tend to agree with the prevailing mood here. Let them form Bible clubs.

But the one thing I always have to ask myself is why do religious folks want to meet at public schools? Why not at their own churches? I suppose convenience is one factor.

On the other hand, there is no doubt in my mind that there is a right-wing fundamentalist religious movement that wants to make inroads into all public activities, be it the public schools or politics, and who wants to force its doctrine on all.

I also think the assumption among many of these groups is that a Bible club would of course be a Christian group using the King James version of the Holy Bible. Would they be comfortable with a turban-wearing group carrying copies of the Koran? Would they want teachers leading everyone in a prayer to Allah?

No so much.

P.s. One thing that causes problems in all of this is that often First Amendment religious issues pit atheists on one side and unyielding and intolerant religious fundamentalists on the other, while most of the public falls in between. Nonetheless, we all live with the ultimate court decisions that are framed from arguments made by the polar extremes.