Religious freedom isn’t up for a vote

Sunday, June 11, 2006

My recent column on “graduation prayer” touched a nerve – a very raw nerve. “You ought to be ashamed,” wrote one reader, echoing a sentiment expressed by many others. “Either that or you’re as dumb as a gourd.”

What triggered the outrage was my characterization of the court order prohibiting a planned prayer at the high school graduation in Russell Springs, Ky. What I described as “school-sponsored prayer” (scheduled to be given by the student chaplain elected by the seniors), many of my readers viewed as the “right of the majority” to have whatever prayer they choose at commencement.

In more than 100 e-mails and counting, readers by a 2-1 ratio summarize the issue this way: The “activist judge” was wrong to ban the prayer, and the 200 students who interrupted the ceremony by standing to recite the Lord’s Prayer were right to protest this violation of “free speech” and “free exercise of religion.”

“I am sick and tired of being told by minorities how I am supposed to live,” writes a Pennsylvania reader. “The majority should rule.” Many others agree, repeatedly warning of the “tyranny of the minority.” A New York reader speaks for many with this rhetorical question: “Why are one person’s objections more important than the values of 99% of the community?”

It’s a fair point. After all, majority rule is at the heart of democracy. But it’s important to remember that our Framers understood the dangers of democracy, including mobocracy. That’s why they had the wisdom and foresight to add the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, putting certain inalienable rights beyond the reach of the majority. The very purpose of the First Amendment is to guard what James Madison called “the great rights of mankind” from the shifting moods of majorities and governments.

This means that even if 99% of the people demand it, no legislature or school board or any other government body can take away our individual natural rights. Our right to free speech and religious freedom – whether we belong to a major religious group, to one of the smallest minorities, or to no group at all – is not up for a vote.

What does this have to do with prayer at graduation? For most of my correspondents, the canceled prayer in Russell Springs was simply a time-honored tradition supported by the vast majority of students and parents – not an “establishment of religion” in violation of anyone’s freedom of religion. Who is harmed, they ask? Why can’t the majority have its prayer?

Because what’s at stake for all of us is a larger principle: The freedom to pray or not to pray without government interference. Many people miss this point when “their” prayer is canceled, only to recognize the problem when the state imposes someone else’s prayer at a public school event. In Russell Springs, school officials organized the election of a student chaplain to give the prayer. This is state-sponsored religion – not the worst example, to be sure – but state-sponsored religion nonetheless.

By prohibiting the prayer by the student chaplain, the judge wasn’t “caving in to the demands of the minority,” as one e-mail described it. On the contrary, he was upholding the First Amendment principle of “no establishment” that keeps public school officials out of the religion business. By upholding that principle, the courts protect all religious faiths – majority and minority – from entanglement with the state.

Keeping school officials from organizing a prayer, however, should not mean keeping religion out of graduation. As it turned out in Russell Springs, student Megan Chapman (who had been elected to give the prayer) was able to speak about her religious faith in her graduation speech. That, not a school-sponsored prayer, is free speech.

Moreover, community leaders in Russell Springs could have organized a privately sponsored baccalaureate service where they could have had all the prayers and sermons they liked. That, not a school-sponsored prayer, is free exercise of religion.

For some people, however, no alternative will do. In spite of the fact that we live in a nation where Christians (and all religious groups) have more freedom than anywhere else in the world to worship and proselytize, some of my readers see the Russell Springs incident as yet another attempt to ban Christianity from the public square. For them, there is no constitutional barrier to school-sponsored prayer because we are, in the words of a South Carolina reader, “a Christian nation.”

“In case you did not know,” a reader informs me, “this country was founded on Christian beliefs and only Christian beliefs … . If you are not a Christian, by the founding fathers way of thinking, you are in the wrong country. You can stay, and you can be a citizen, but do not try to change our beliefs.”

Fortunately, our Founders (who were mostly religious, if often unorthodox, in their faith) rejected this idea of a “Christian America.” Instead they bequeathed to us a Constitution that protects religious liberty by keeping the government from imposing any religion, especially in a public school.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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