J. KARL MILLER: What happened to freedom of religion?

Wednesday, May 29, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:41 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 29, 2013

As happens from time to time, my esteemed colleague and fellow writer (David Rosman) and I will disagree on an issue — which, by the way, is healthy because, should we always agree, one of us would surely be unnecessary.

Consequently, it should not surprise anyone that Dave and I would not see eye to eye on the subject of school prayer and the Establishment Clause/Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment.

He cited two offending incidents, one taking place in a Lumpkin County, Ga., high school and the other in our backyard — the high school in Fayette, about 20 miles away as the crow flies.

The former was initiated by a student seeking guidance from a coach that expanded into "text messages passed among students that a prayer vigil was taking place," as Mr. Rosman described it, citing national news sources.

He added that more than 50 students, four teachers and the coach participated — for up to six hours — with class abandoned by faculty and students, who used cellphones, which are prohibited by the student code of conduct.

The second incident concerns a weekly Friday morning prayer session that students are encouraged to attend in Fayette.

The American Humanist Association took issue with the prayer session in a letter to school officials naming the practice unconstitutional and demanding the prayers be ended. For good measure, the letter added that, horror of horrors, the teacher, Gwen Pope, displays Christian literature in full view on her desk.

Mr. Rosman would have us believe that somehow these activities cross a "Constitutional Rubicon," thus placing our First Amendment rights in peril.

I take the opposing view, with a virtual shrug of my shoulders and a "so what?" attitude to what I consider the ultimate in creating a crisis where one does not — and never has — existed.

The first example, far from being a constitutional issue is, instead, one to be handled by school officials. Any disruption that includes teachers abandoning classrooms and students absenting themselves from their studies and illicitly using cellphones, regardless of the reason, is a disciplinary problem rather than a constitutional crisis and should be dealt with as such.

The Fayette High School problem is typical of those broached by such organizations as the aforementioned American Humanist Association, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, all famous for seeking arenas to stir up "teapot tempests."

There is little difference between the ACLU's silly lawsuit to remove a religious fish symbol from the Republic, Mo., courthouse and the attempted removal of the Mount Soledad cross on a war memorial in La Jolla, Calif., an edifice that has stood since 1913.

I am fully knowledgeable about both the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of our First Amendment and also of the misinterpretation of Thomas Jefferson's "wall of separation between church and state" letters, which have many Americans convinced that those words actually exist in the Constitution.

The landmark ruling that separated religion and the civil state was a 5-4 decision in Everson v. Board of Education in 1947.

It should not be difficult at all to separate the wheat from the chaff in the interpretation of the Establishment Clause's, "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion," or the Free Exercise Clause's, "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Apparently the best legal minds of our judiciary have problems reconciling the clauses inasmuch as beginning with Everson v. Board of Education, the highest court and appellate court rulings don't pass my common-sense test.

How is it possible that a simple school prayer, a prayer before a sporting event, one before a commencement exercise, a cross celebrating fallen soldiers, display of the Ten Commandments or even a religious symbol on a courthouse constitutes "a religion established by Congress"?

And, why doesn't banning these relatively innocuous activities violate "the free exercise of religion thereof"?

The notion that such religious activity is "state-sponsored" if an objective observer perceives official school support for such religious activities is a stretch.

It appears to hinge upon who is the arbiter of "objectivity" and whether an institution such as Fayette High School can be identified as "the state," notwithstanding the ruling in Board of Education v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226, 249–50 (1990).

Granted, most, if not all of these activities are of the Christian faith but, since 77 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians, is it really a problem? Are these prayers, symbols or other actions intended to proselyte or convert non-Christians?

From 1776, the Everson v. Board of Education ruling, the influence of renowned atheist Madaelyn Murray O'Hair to copycat lawsuits by people largely seeking notoriety, was there any evidence of a budding theocracy or any of the various religions seizing power over the state?

As an example, Thomas Jefferson, most often quoted for his "wall of separation" letters, is almost never recognized for his contribution to religious tolerance: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Accordingly, in the non-meritorious battle between church and state, what is needed is more tolerance and less nitpicking.

A quote from Ray Davis, author of "The Horns of Elfland," should rule our behavior. "Tolerance only for those who agree with you is no tolerance at all.”

J. Karl Miller is a retired colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps.

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Ellis Smith May 29, 2013 | 7:41 a.m.

The problem with applying a "common sense" test, Karl, is the presumption that some people (names will mercifully be omitted) actually have any [common sense, that is]. Further, more than a few of those who appear to lack common sense seem constantly on the lookout for "windmills to joust." If there's really no danger, they'll create one.

Could this spring from personal inferiority? It's tempting to speculate that it does, but who, perhaps not even the individuals themselves, knows.

As for Jefferson, we need to remember that he was born in and grew up in a British colony where, while other religions than the Anglican Church were tolerated, citizens had to monitarily support the official church through taxation, an unfair situation indeed.

Just as Jefferson designed his home, he also designed the message on his tombstone: you can visit Monticello and read it today. There is nothing said about his having been President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Ambassador to France, or (briefly, during the Revolutionary War) Governor of Virginia, or having served in the Virginia legislature.

Jefferson lists only three acomplishments: Author of the Declaration of Independence, author of a Virginia statute FOR RELIGIOUS FREEDOM [emphasis mine], and founder of University of Virginia (the first American public university).

Jefferson's own alma mater was the College of William & Mary, then and for long after a private institution, but William & Mary is today public and part of the University if Virginia system of universities and colleges.

(Report Comment)
Tony Black May 29, 2013 | 12:23 p.m.

So Karl, and the rest of the gang, you would be fine with your children sitting through a Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist prayer before school activities? You will say "of course I would", but look at yourself in the mirror and say it.You know better. You would scream at the top of your lungs. Religion does not just mean Christian.

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders May 29, 2013 | 1:07 p.m.

Neither you or Mr. Rosman will ever be superfluous as long as both of you keep engaging in the age old battle tactic of divide and conquer, which does nothing but further empower evil over the lives of all.

For example, were schools NOT organs of the state, then there would be NO issues on school prayer. But government criminality can never survive unless the minds of the youth are harnessed to the yoke of obedience early on in life, so that they might not ever bother to reflect upon the evil of one gang enslaving another under the "rule of law."

But hey, if it weren't for fighting fake ideological battles, what would either of you do with your free time?

(Report Comment)
Kevin Gamble May 29, 2013 | 1:22 p.m.

I think we know how the columnist would react if Columbia teachers abandoned their classes to conduct a Muslim prayer group, or displayed Muslim literature or symbols in the classroom. Or if Muslim symbols were prominently displayed in courthouses. Or if Muslim prayers and symbols were used in any of the "innocent" contexts he lists.

The claim made about the majority of Americans identifying themselves as Christian is irrelevant - civil rights are not about 'majority rules'. As for the question, "Are these prayers, symbols or other actions intended to proselyte or convert non-Christians?", the answer is clear: one of the central tenets of almost any organized religion, Christianity included, is proselytization - to "save" as many souls as possible.

The Jefferson quote that Miller supplies is about personal, individual tolerance, which is not what the rest of the column is about - the issue is institutional promotion of religion.

Mr. Miller is failing to heed his own advice - he is showing tolerance only for that with which he already agrees, making this show of "tolerance" an empty exercise.

(Report Comment)
Tony Black May 29, 2013 | 1:49 p.m.

Richard, you're kidding, right? Fake ideological battles? Are saying that with a straight face? I shall conclude that you were home schooled, never went to public school? Because how else could you be conservative, what with all that liberal love-fest going on in public schools. Also, are you using a Catholic bible to preach to these kids, or a protestant one? Old testament or new? Methodist, Baptist? Mormon maybe?

To you all who quote the founding fathers, Patrick Henry said "Give me liberty or give me death". He owned around 25 slaves at the time.

(Report Comment)
Tony Black May 29, 2013 | 2:10 p.m.

I have a fake ideology for ya. When was the last time anyone actively tried to stop YOU from practicing religion? Not a school or courthouse, but you personally? Probably about the same time someone yelled at you for saying Merry Christmas.

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David Rosman May 29, 2013 | 2:26 p.m.

Karl - Good column. One thing, however. Madaelyn Murray O'Hair was not out to seek notoriety, but to protect those freedoms you hold so dear, the American freedom to believe in one's own faith and not to believe at all.

The parents and children who complained about the actions of the two schools, as well as sponsored prayer in legislative meetings, see school sponsored prayer as a violation of their First Amendment right not to be forcibly exposed to any religious dogma. Even if the prayer were "voluntary," the social ridicule for not attending can and has been extreme. It is hard enough for a teenager to fit in with her or his peers; religion is only another way to further isolate an individuals, to create an atmosphere of mental and physical bullying because they "are different."

It is no different with adults who, because of their non-participation in an invocation at a government sponsored event, are equally chastised and demonized by those of fundamentalist faith. (I am not referring to Christian Fundamentalists here, but those of all faiths.)

Those who seek to maintain that fine balance between your personal freedom to believe or not versus the state's sponsorship of any religious sect are not seeking notoriety.

Yes, many of those seeking redress are atheists, but many are men and women of faith who see that line of separation crossed. A point in fact, the executive director of Americans United for the separation of Church and State is the Reverend Barry Lynn. (

By addressing the issue of religious rights,whether it is these two schools, legislative districts and other governmental agencies, these men and women are seeking what you are; the high standards set by our Founders who knew that the mixture of Church and State only leads to tyranny.

Yes, there are extreme atheists, those who take their anti- and a-religion positions a bit too far, but saying that their support of the Establishment Clause is only to seek personal notoriety is simply wrong.

(Report Comment)
Skip Yates May 29, 2013 | 2:51 p.m.

I was wondering how far down I would have to go before I read the word "Muslim". As expected, not far. Where were all these folks and the ACLU when public universities were building foot washing stations and accomodating muslim prayer ritual? Or sweat lodges in federal prisons for Native Americans? Well, of course, they were multi-cultural, politically correct, liberal and silent.

(Report Comment)
Tony Black May 29, 2013 | 5:14 p.m.

Well Skip, since the article is about religious discrimination, and Muslims are always a good target for you guys, it's a good bet we would mention it. I would have to have examples of your foot washing, however, I do remember the sweat lodges. Don't prisons have chapels? Why provide for one religion but not another? Would you sit through a Buddhist (I mentioned them and Hindus too but you glossed over that)ceremony at a school function, but they offered no Christian service, without a complaint? Again, I know your answer on here, but look at yourself in the mirror and say it. You see, when people are treated fairly and EQUALLY, we have no complaints. Chapel in prison= sweat lodge or synogogue (spelling?). I would think the Native Americans would have the biggest gripe, seeing as how we came over and "civilized" them. But, since you only prove to prop up my point about tolerance, thanks.

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Skip Yates May 29, 2013 | 7:20 p.m.

@Tony: There is a difference between tolerance and providing special accomodation and diminishing the religion in which this country was founded. Why do I mention Muslim...well, I know of know other which killing non-believers is an accepted platform. Why don't you zip over to Egypt, a previously tolerant country until the muslim hard-liners took control, thanks to us, and start your own Christian church and take your wife down to the beach in her bikini...then tell me how precious the Muslim religion is? If you get out of jail, that is. You can find the cost of providing feet washing stations at universities and the cost on the internet. You apparently don't know what is going on with muslims in Europe. And, the intolerance is when a school teacher can't wear a small silver cross around her neck in an American school, because it might offend someone.

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frank christian May 29, 2013 | 9:07 p.m.

T. Black - "When was the last time anyone actively tried to stop YOU from practicing religion?" Look at, Censoring God, or is this the first recorded history of a liberal, being concerned with with the feelings of an individual human being?

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frank christian May 29, 2013 | 9:36 p.m.

S. - "For example, were schools NOT organs of the state, then there would be NO issues on school prayer."

This, of course, is the case here in U.S., because of our Constitution (our prez regards it as an obstruction). In recent history even before 1960, The governments of Nazi Germany, USSR and other nations governed by tyrants around the world, needing allegiance to themselves only, have routinely diminished expressions of prayer and religion, to the degree they were able.

Your slander of the "rule of law", indicates that you are clueless, in this matter,

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks May 29, 2013 | 10:00 p.m.

Tony: I think one could still be conservative and have attended public school in their youth. Liberalism is a state of mind for many young Americans. It is only when they grow up and get a job and get married and have children that they have to care for (not the state) when they open their eyes and say "Gee what a fool I was"

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 30, 2013 | 6:10 a.m.

@ Corey Parks:

As I've posted before, I was once, in my youth, a flaming Liberal. Assuming adult responsibilities certainly has a lot to do with altering one's political opinions.

It's downright sad, even pathetic, to see people even as old as I am now (80) still spouting that nonsense.

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J Karl Miller May 30, 2013 | 9:52 a.m.

Once again you have hit the nail squarely on the head-- any time a writer attempts to appeal to common sense among the readers, Casablanca's Captain Louis Renault's "usual suspects" chime in to attack the messenger rather than the message itself.

One can only wonder why a column espousing tolerance can ignite the fires of intolerance among the "enlightened." Is anyone actually harmed by a simple Christian prayer and,does that prayer really constitute a religion established by Congress?

How did this nation overcome the war of rebellion (Civil War), emerge victorious in two World Wars and establish itself as the premier world power before the 1947 Everson Vs Board of Education ruling that did littel but cause friction between the church and the civil state.

(Report Comment)
J Karl Miller May 30, 2013 | 10:43 a.m.


I do thank you for the kind words; however, in my opinion the children and parents who complained in those two schools and in others that "their Constitutional rights were violated by "being forcibly esposed to religious dogma" are 1. Expressing a marked degree of intolerance, 2.Seeking noteriety or 3. Need to get a life. Into each life a little rain must fall--those parents have exposed their youngsters to much more ridicule and ostracizing by making a mountain out of a mole hill. Remaining silent and ignoring the words of a prayer or the Pledge of Allegiance rather than calling attention to oneself unnecessarily is a better example of the employment of common sense.

Finally David--just what religious denomination should we fear in establishing a tyranny? The organized religions of whicch I am familiar have enough trouble controlling their congregations to be a threat to establish a theocratic regime. The days of the inquisition and the Crusades are mementos of the past.

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Ellis Smith May 30, 2013 | 2:08 p.m.


You also have hit the nail on the head by placing "enlightened" in quotation points.

In answer to your question, there ARE Lutherans skulking in darkened corners, waiting to impose their brand of religion on atheists and agnostics. We all know how much trouble those damned Lutherans caused in a previous century! :)

(Report Comment)
J Karl Miller May 30, 2013 | 4:37 p.m.


Lutherans will always bring a tasty covered dish to their proselyting.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 30, 2013 | 5:23 p.m.

"Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott..."

["A Mighty Fortress Is Our God..."]

Hey, if one is going to be "politically incorrect," why not go all the way? Nothing like a rousing hymn prior to Essen und Trinken (no translation required).

(Report Comment)

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