I became Executive Director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union in June of 1992, so the Christmas just past was my first experience being a part of an organization that– judging from letters to Editors and assorted syndicated columns — everyone loves to hate. On the assumption…
I became Executive Director of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union in June of 1992, so the Christmas just past was my first experience being a part of an organization that– from letters to Editors and assorted syndicated columns — everyone loves to hate. On the assumption that even the Grinch deserves equal time, I offer some post-holiday observations.
The First Amendment – and those of us who support it – does not impede private religious expression. What it prohibits is “establishment” of religion by agencies of government – including but not limited to schools. Despite numerous assertions to the contrary, truly voluntary school prayer has never been declared unconstitutional. What the Courts do not allow is coercing children to participate in religious observances. Similarly, the Courts have never prohibited teaching about religion. It is obviously impossible to teach history, literature or art without appropriate recognition of the role that religion has played in human society. Religion in the schools for pedagogical purposes is constitutionally permissible – religious observance is not.
The Courts have also held that religious displays (creches, menorahs, crosses, etc.) may not be erected on property owned by government, unless it is very clear that the government is not endorsing or sponsoring a particular religion. Secular seasonal displays (Santa Claus, Christmas Trees) are allowable.
The First Amendment provides for a balance between government’s duty to “accommodate” religion and the prohibition against its “establishment.” On the one hand, schools must allow religious groups access to their facilities for after-school use if those facilities are open to non-religious groups. On the other hand, schools may not allow religious programs during instructional time when students constitute a captive audience.
It bears emphasizing that these rules are limited to situations involving government. Private individuals are free to celebrate the season wherever and however they choose. The founding fathers believed that government should be kept separate from religion. They were primarily concerned with the authenticity of religious experience, which they believed would be compromised by government entanglement; they could not have envisioned the religious diversity of America in the 1990s.
In a land where Ba’Hai’s outnumber Episcopalians, where some inner city schools are predominantly Muslim, where the term “Protestant” refers to literally hundreds of denominations ranging from fundamentalist to mainline, the ‘Wall of Separation” they erected guarantees official impartiality and a degree of tolerance and civic peace. Keeping government out of the business of endorsing religion respects the right of individuals and families to make their own religious decisions.
But the framers did something else in the First Amendment. In addition to forbidding government involvement with religion, they prohibited its interference with the free exchange of ideas. Those who wish to persuade others to follow certain beliefs, or adhere to particular religions, may issue pamphlets, start television networks, publish newspapers and magazines, establish schools- – they may use virtually any means to communicate their message, except the agencies of government.
As with so many constitutional issues, the relationship of government to religion boils down to one fundamental question: Who shall decide? Who shall dictate what prayer we shall say? In America, we each decide these matters for ourselves.
Maybe the Bill of Rights was the best Christmas present of all. This Grinch certainly thinks so.