Kids won’t gain rights through religion bill

Thursday, July 15, 1999

Amid growing public concern about safety in our schools, many politicians have suggested that we need to return religion to the public schools.

It never left.

U.S. Supreme Court rulings about separation of church and state have left many Americans with a sense that religion has been banned from the schools and students are not allowed to pray or exercise freedom of religion.

That’s clearly not the case.

In fact, thanks to a number of court decisions, students enjoy a wide range of religion-related activities at public schools.

How then do we explain the actions of 248 members of the U.S. House of Representatives who recently voted to allow states to permit the display of the Ten Commandments in public schools and public buildings, ostensibly to combat the kind of violence we saw in Littleton, Colo.?

How do we explain the remarks of House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who said after the vote: “I got an e-mail this morning that said it all. The student writes, ‘Dear God: Why didn’t you stop the shootings at Columbine?’ And God writes, ‘Dear student: I would have, but I wasn’t allowed in school.’ “

And how do we explain the comments of Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who said, “If we keep telling children to check their faith at the door, they won’t have any basis to know right from wrong.”

DeLay and DeMint are wrong. A public school student’s faith in God is, in fact, protected by the U.S. Constitution. And students are not told they must “check their faith at the door.”

To the contrary, students enjoy real religious freedom in public schools:

  • Students have the right to exercise their religion in many ways as long as it does not disrupt the school or the classroom. This can include wearing religious symbols or carrying and reading a Bible or other religious material.
  • Students are free to engage in voluntary prayer. Again, this can be done as long as it does not distract from the educational process or interfere with the rights of others.
  • Students can pray together around a flagpole in the morning or around a cafeteria table at lunch. No one has a right to interfere with their prayers.
  • In secondary schools, students may form religion clubs. They are treated just like other extracurricular clubs.

It is true that court decisions have found that teachers and coaches cannot lead students in prayers or engage in any religious activity on school grounds. Those decisions — applying the principles of the First Amendment — are about keeping the government well away from endorsing religion.

It’s also clear that while schools cannot practice religion, they can certainly teach about religion.

These 248 House members understand that the Constitution mandates separation of church and state. These legislators — who are ethically and morally bound to uphold the Constitution — know their amendment is unconstitutional.

But they also see the clear benefits in being able to tell constituents that they did something about school violence. They stood up for God.

It should be noted these members stood up for their God.

I’m confident that every legislator who cast a vote for the Ten Commandments believes it to be a holy document. In other words, the representatives used the power of their public office to advance their own religious beliefs.

That’s precisely what Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sought to prevent.

Despite the fact that public school students enjoy significant religious freedom, these legislators choose to suggest the opposite. The vote attempted to elevate one set of religious beliefs above all others.

Columnists and commentators have poked fun at the House for its vote, writing that the posting of the Ten Commandments is a ridiculous way to address school violence.

These critics missed the point. There was nothing laughable about the House action.

A majority of the House voted to undercut true religious liberty while pretending that the Ten Commandments have no more religious significance than a verse from a Hallmark card.

This was a politically cynical act — and a dangerous first step toward the establishment of a state religion.