Setting it straight on schools, religion
The authors of the Bill of Rights and the state legislators who ratified it were well aware of the savage and murderous history of state-supported Christianity, notably after the reign of Henry VIII when the government seesawed between Protestantism and Catholicism and Queen Bloody Mary earned her appellation. They also had freshly experienced various abuses of the British government in other respects. The general purpose of the Bill of Rights, then, is to limit the power of the government to intrude in our lives or to abuse us.
With respect to religion in the public schools, the teacher is an agent of the government with the power of government behind her and is prohibited from promoting religion. What is less understood is that she is also prohibited from suppressing it. Therefore, children are perfectly free to pray at lunch, before a test, before an athletic event or any other occasion, on their own, as long as they do not disturb others. The lad who wanted to distribute religious Christmas cards to his classmates and was denied was within his rights, and his parents might have received support from the American Civil Liberties Union had they asked.
The teacher who thought she could not tell the children that the first Thanksgiving gave thanks to God was confused about her obligations, because teaching our history, including the role of religion, is necessary and is not promoting religion itself, unless given that slant. The record of religion in our history is not so exemplary – the forced Christianization of Native American children and the obliteration of their culture in Indian schools, the support for slavery by citing the Bible, the indifference to the holocaust with the denial of a haven for Jewish refugees, and the refusal of a juror in Mississippi to convict a preacher of orchestrating the murder of three Civil Rights workers simply because he was a preacher.
The Declaration of Independence does indeed refer to a creator, but it is not the Constitution. The oath of office for an incoming president provided in the Constitution pointedly omits reference to God and permits the option to affirm instead of swear. If Washington chose to swear on a Bible and add “so help me God,” it was a personal choice, creating a tradition which subsequent presidents ignore at their peril.
The American Civil Liberties Union is devoted to implementing the Bill of Rights, that is, the limitation of government power, by taking the government to court when the government oversteps its lawful boundaries. The ACLU has to convince judges of the validity of its arguments. You don’t like the ACLU? Then you are not too fond of our courts and not too happy with the Bill of Rights. Before the ACLU was organized, no one had civil liberties because no one sued the government over its flagrant abuses, for example, the Alien and Sedition Acts during the presidency of John Adams.
It is not likely that the Bill of Rights could be enacted today. Not only does the animosity toward the ACLU illustrate this daily, but researches with college students and other citizens, which pose hypothetical situations for their judgment, show a lack of knowledge or respect for our precious rights. These examples tend to focus on the rights of social outcasts – radicals, criminals, the poor – where the government finds it easiest to overstep its boundaries unchallenged. And that is why the ACLU is frequently in defense of outcasts.
Expressions of religion at government-sponsored ceremonies with a captive audience are not inspirational and do not touch the soul. Their purpose is to declare just who owns the country and the government, namely, Christians, as angry letters on the subject make clear. Religion does not need these extraneous salutes. The United States is the most religious of western countries and religion has clearly flourished under government limitations. There is plenty of place for religion in church, in the home, and in the heart.
Leo Subotnik lives in Nevada City.
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