Keeping government out of religion — and vice-versa

Sunday, February 10, 2002

Maybe we should consider rewriting the First Amendment, or at least offer a modern-day translation.

Sure, the content is great, but there’s something about its 210-year-old language that escapes many public officials, particularly when it comes to religious freedom.

Consider the religion clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. …”

Here’s a more contemporary take: “Government must keep its hands off religion. The government may not interfere with the way the people worship or exercise their faith. In addition, the government — which represents all the people — cannot practice religion or favor one religion over another.”

These basic principles have served us well for more than 200 years, yet government officials often seem oblivious:

  • Parish road crews in Franklinton, La., posted signs on state roads a few weeks ago saying: “Jesus is Lord over Franklinton.” Area churches paid for the signs.
  • In Inglis, Fla., last month, Mayor Carolyn Risher issued a proclamation: “Satan is hereby declared powerless, no longer ruling over, nor influencing, our citizens.” The proclamation, which included several references to Jesus Christ, was placed at the four entrances to the town, along with the painted words “Repent,” “Request” and “Resist.”
  • An American Civil Liberties Union lawyer challenged the action, inspiring this Washington Times headline: “ACLU Sides with Satan in Dispute with Mayor.”

  • The Williamson County, Tenn., school board, in an effort to be more respectful of all faiths, had renamed the Christmas and Easter holidays as “winter” and “mini-spring” breaks, respectively. After some turnover, the board last month revoked the decision, again indicating that the holidays should be referred to as Christmas and Easter breaks.
  • The majority of the board apparently embraced board member Charlene Kimmel’s argument that they should “call a spade a spade” and acknowledge that these vacations are timed to coincide with widely celebrated religious holidays. But scheduling school holidays to coincide with the religious celebrations of a specific faith is a bit like Gaylord Perry throwing a spitter: You can get away with it if you don’t announce it from the mound.

    Board member Leslie Pippin said, “I don’t want to discriminate, but at the same time, I don’t want to be discriminated against.”

    Of course, the operative word is “I.” In each of these cases, government officials — elected by people of a wide range of faiths — chose to use their power to advance their own religious beliefs.

    In defending the school board decision, Pippin said, “Quite simply this nation was founded upon Christian principles.”

    In truth, this nation was founded on constitutional principles. These principles were drafted by men, many of whom were Christian and some of whom were deist, who understood clearly the dangers of entangling government with religion. Their draft of the Constitution — the blueprint for this nation’s freedom — contained only one reference to religion: a specific guarantee that no one could be prohibited from holding public office because of their faith.

    While favoritism toward one faith is troubling, so, too, is government hostility toward religion, particularly in public schools.

    Faith-based community groups have the same right as any organization to use public schools after hours. Students have the right to form Bible study groups in high schools. Students can witness to others on a public school campus. Just as government can’t favor a faith, it can’t penalize religion either. But some school districts just don’t seem to get the message.

    Three weeks ago, 5-year-old Kayla Broadus was told she could not say grace out loud as she sat down to eat lunch at her Saratoga Springs, N.Y., elementary school. The school’s ill-considered rationale: Saying grace was a violation of the separation of church and state. A federal judge quickly issued a temporary restraining order protecting her freedom of religion. Yes, even 5-year-olds have First Amendment rights.

    These actions in Louisiana, Florida, Tennessee and New York won’t have any long-term impact. Satan is still not welcome in Inglis. Non-Christian students in Williamson County will still take their vacation days, no matter what they’re called. In Saratoga Springs, little Kayla is back to saying grace.

    Yet these cases — like others across the nation — remind us that many government officials never truly reflect on the meaning of the 16 words high atop the Bill of Rights. Those words are not a license to promote religion or prohibit it. The message is as timely today as it was in 1791: Government must keep its hands off religion.

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