An individual praying in a public school is not the problem. A religious prayer sponsored by the school is the problem.
This is not an anti-religion or anti-Christian column. This is about crossing the constitutional Rubicon.
Twice this month those shores have been breached — that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” has been crossed. Once in Lumpkin County, Ga., and once in Fayette, Mo.
On the morning of May 1, a student at Lumpkin County High School had a question about faith and religion. Naturally, he went to a still-unidentified coach who was known to be a devout Christian, to get answers.
Stories from Atlanta's ABC and Fox news affiliates indicate that at some point the young man asked the coach to pray with him. Certainly a foot was placed in the river, but what happened next forced the conflict.
Text messages were passed among students that a prayer vigil was taking place. More than 50 students, four teachers and the coach participated — for up to six hours — with class abandoned by faculty and students using cellphones, which are prohibited by the student code of conduct.
Once the teachers attended the meeting, once the meeting was allowed to disrupt the school day and no action was taken by the school administration, once it was perceived that the school was sanctioning the vigil, the river was crossed and the “Establishment Clause” violated.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote the Lumpkin County school district with a formal complaint, stating that the prayer vigil continued in violation of constitutional law and court decisions.
On May 15, I wrote a pointed essay concerning the situation in Lumpkin County in my blog. And yes, there is more to this story.
On Friday mornings after school begins at Fayette High School, teacher Gwen Pope leads Christian prayers for students. The American Humanist Association wrote a four-page letter of complaint to the principal, teacher, superintendent of the Fayette schools and the president of the School Board, claiming “Students are encouraged to attend these sessions by an announcement made by the principal over the school’s intercom system.”
Citing County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 610 (1989), the AHA letter continued, “[T]he government [may] not advance, promote, affiliate with, endorse, prefer or favor any particular religion, it “‘may not favor religious belief over disbelief’ or ‘adopt a preference for the dissemination of religious ideas.’
“This includes any school-sponsored, -promoted or -affiliated religious activity in a public school.
A religious activity is ‘state-sponsored’ and therefore unconstitutional if ‘an objective observer . . . will perceive official school support for such religious [activity].’ Board of Educ. v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226, 249–50 (1990).”
Like the situation in Lumpkin County, this prayer meeting was a clear threat to and violation of the First Amendment. In both cases, they appear to be in violation of their respective state constitutions.
Those who claim that the government cannot prevent them from practicing their faith are mostly right; there are some exceptions, like tossing venomous snaking into the congregation. The Constitution is very specific in protecting the rights of all citizens and guests of this country to practice the religion of their choosing, including practicing no religion at all. If one wishes to pray, please do so.
The Constitution also is clear that the government, from local to federal, cannot promote or establish a religion. That is exactly what the two school districts have done. They both crossed the Rubicon.
I know the responses I will receive for this column will look like; I have already read some: “…the crap that comes out the supreme court contradicts the constitution which is by far the only decent piece of legislation we still have.” (sic)
However, someone else reminded me of another point. If this were a Muslim prayer meeting, would the reaction from the religious-right be the same outrage concerning “freedom of religion” or condemnation of the Muslims for violating the First Amendment?
It is unfortunate that the Fayette story has been missed by national media. This is a conversation that needs to happen. If the United States was, is or becomes a Christian nation, our First Amendment rights would drown crossing the river.