Thursday, April 24, 2014

Religious Liberty for All

photo by K. G. Hawes / flickr
Real Religious Freedom in this country does not mean my religious freedom..,.but everybody's religious freedom. Without all being included nobody is really free.
  --Roger Lovette

There is a bill floating around the country which says that public schools “would allow students to pray or engage in religious activities or religious expression before, during and after the school day.” The proposed law also said that “faith-themed clothing can be worn on public school property at public events.” The Governor of Virginia vetoed this bill. Why?

Naturally this veto has stirred up as hornet’s nest. What could possibly be wrong with allowing public school students the right to pray publicly and express their religious beliefs?

This bill and others imply that students do not have the right to pray in schools. Numerous Supreme Court decisions have said that religious expression by anyone must be protected as other expressions are protected. The clincher to not ignore is: the expressions of religious must not coerce, sponsor or be endorsed by any agency or person representing the government.

As I read these words my mind wandered back to my grade school. The week began with the teacher always asking, “Class, how many of you went to Sunday School yesterday?” I always raised my hand because I loved church and Sunday School and wouldn’t have missed it for anything. But as I looked back at those years I remember when the hands were raised—here and there were boys and girls who could not raise their hands. They did not go to Sunday School or Church. I remember the teacher chiding these unraised hands and telling them how important it was for them to be in church.

The setting is always important. Ours was a little cotton-mill village school. It was ruled by the strong hand of an old-maid Presbyterian Principal whom everybody feared. Everybody in my class room was a Baptist, except for a smattering of Methodists and further up the road the Holiness Church. There wasn’t a Catholic or a Jew or any other group within a ten-mile radius. This was the South in the forties and fifties. We were insulated from a great deal of the world even then.

Majority ruled. So—every Monday, before Scripture and prayer we would be asked about Sunday School. I have often wondered how those children must have felt who could not raise their hands. I knew a couple who did raise their hands out of embarrassment who had never entered the doors of a church.

If a teacher asked that question in just about any school today—a lot of hands could not be raised. For any classroom holds Jews, Mormons, Muslims and sometimes a Buddhist or two. To allow the school to return to school sponsored prayer and Bible reading in the nation’s public schools would be a mess. It would leave too many people out. It would make too many students feel like outsiders. 

We know students have religious pre-school and after school programs. No coercion. No mandated gatherings. Just young people who are free to sing, pray, read the Bible and have meditations. This is perfectly fine.

The point is that the public school in 2014 is not in the school-sponsored prayer business. We have no business returning to a different time and a different age. We are in a diverse age. The world with all its variety has come to America.

Old-time Baptists that first came to this country understood the outsider. They left England and moved to Holland because the state-mandated church would not allow freedom of expression of their faith. Stubbornly they refused to pray from the prayer book and to have their ministers approved by the state. They wanted to be free. But even in the new land they found they were outsiders. They did not belong to the approved church of that time. They were ridiculed and many of their ministers were jailed. Out of that setting came the first Amendment to the Constitution. We have no state-sponsored faith. We make room, on our better days for every person. No one should feel like an outsider because of his or her faith or non-faith.

Nobody believes in prayer more than me. But—I stand by the first Amendment to the Constitution. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...” We have not taken prayer out of our schools. Nor will we in this country. The atheists who protest what schools can do—will not rule the day. But hopefully we will not return to a time where children whose faith is different than ours will ever feel out of place in a public school classroom.

photo by funkor / flickr

(I am indebted to Ellis M. West and his article, "They're Back," which appeared in Associated Baptist Press, April 21, 2014 for some of his ideas for this blog piece.)

                                          --Roger Lovette/

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