Safe schools should be safe for religious expression, too

Sunday, August 29, 1999

With the tragic shootings in Columbine still fresh in their minds, school officials across the nation are pulling out all the stops to ensure school safety, including crackdowns on gang activity.

That's why administrators in Harrison County, Mississippi, prohibited Ryan Green from wearing the Star of David on school grounds. District policy bans all gang emblems, and some gangs reportedly wear a six-pointed star as a symbol.

Ryan took offense. His only “gang” membership is a faith community that's been around for thousands of years. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Ryan's family filed suit. A few days later, the school board backed down and exempted religious symbols from its anti-gang policy.

The board did the right thing — even though it took a lawyer to make them do it. Of course, Harrison County officials should do everything possible to stop gang activity in their schools. But they shouldn't violate fundamental constitutional rights in the process.

Surely administrators can maintain safe schools without making Jews remove the Star of David (or, for that matter, without forcing Christians to give up wearing the cross if some gang should adopt that symbol).

Is Ryan's case really worth all the fuss? After all, Jews aren't required to wear the Star of David outside their clothing. Why not just hide it under a shirt?

Because the real issue isn't where Ryan wears the Star of David but how best to preserve the principle of religious liberty.

The freedom to express religious faith without governmental interference is an inalienable right, the first liberty protected under the First Amendment. And this freedom must be upheld even when the government's interference is an unintended byproduct of a necessary law or policy.
“Free exercise of religion” means little if religious people can't be exempted — whenever possible — from general laws or policies passed by the government.

The Catholic child should be able to participate in the Mass, even though the government has compelling reasons to prohibit the serving of alcohol to minors. The Native American should be allowed to use peyote in a sacred ceremony, even when drug laws ban it as an illegal substance. And if the congregation of a church or synagogue decides to alter its sanctuary, religious freedom should trump state interest, even when government has declared the building an historic landmark.

But why should religion be given special treatment? Shouldn't religious people follow the laws just like everyone else?

Religion is different because our Framers recognized that the right of citizens to “follow the dictates of conscience” must be protected as far as possible. That's why they added the first 16 words of the First Amendment to the Constitution.

People of faith — and, indeed, all Americans — should be proud of 15-year-old Ryan Green for having the courage to stand up for his convictions. History reveals that even an apparently minor incident can erode vital principles. As James Madison warned more than 200 years ago: “It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties.”