OEDEL: Religion and schools

May 12, 2013 

Houston County schools chief Robin Hines recited settled Supreme Court authority when he said school officials can’t constitutionally lead prayers or appeal to God at Houston’s graduation exercises May 24-25. As the Telegraph’s editorial noted May 5, the court has outlawed clergy-led prayer at graduations and school-organized prayer at football games as violations of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

But Hines was also correct that the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment protect the rights of private participants to express their own views.

The court’s decisions also suggest that public school leaders may not constitutionally entangle themselves in religious matters by becoming some sort of thought police, issuing prophylactic orders restraining individual participants from speaking of faith.

Government officials are not constitutionally authorized to “cleanse” from the public record any hint that graduates of a public school might ponder a higher power.

Religion’s role in public school graduation ceremonies is therefore largely legally clear, even if there may sometimes be practical difficulties distinguishing constitutional private expression from unconstitutional official endorsement.

For instance, does popular music selected by students for graduation time need to be “certified” by school authorities as religion-free? If some student-selected music is privately popular with students outside of school, official censorship for religiosity might be too intrusive. Before some aging rockers and rappers scoff at the idea of religious music being popular with teens, I’d suggest checking K-LOVE radio or similar venues.

During the ceremonial pomp of graduation, most Christians could probably live with accepting official silence and private expressions of faith -- at least those Christians recalling Matthew, who wrote that Jesus described as “hypocrites” those who “love to stand and pray” loudly in public.

A much bigger but unstated problem, though, is what doesn’t happen daily for our public school students. School administrators and teachers seem to have adopted a bizarre, mistaken view of what can constitutionally be taught when it comes to religion. They imagine that study and discussion of religion is largely, if not wholly, off limits.

How utterly wrong. The story of human civilization in all cultures invariably includes, even sometimes centers on, religious themes. Atheists themselves admit that the basic human instinct, expressed in thought, art, culture, history, economics, law and politics, to ponder what might lie beyond the human realm (if anything), is one of the defining characteristics of civilization and humanity itself.

If we’re not rigorously helping our children to explore how people in all contexts and throughout history have approached this immense mystery, then we’re not educating our children in what they need to be knowledgeable citizens of a great civilization among civilizations.

How could we explain to them the framers’ adoption of the Establishment Clause without understanding the intense religious persecution that led many of the framers’ families to our shores? How could we explain Abraham Lincoln’s greatness without understanding his reliance on what he understood to be God’s guidance? How could we explain the difference between the approaches taken by Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., without considering their religious orientations? How could we understand the Boston bombings without considering the tension between Islam and Christianity?

The Establishment Clause doesn’t force our public schools to be second-class institutions, places where the religious instinct is evaded out of some juvenile fear of nine justices who haven’t said what some people think they may have said.

When the First Amendment was ratified in 1791, there were no public schools, and it would have been inconceivable then that one would not educate one’s children about religion. The ratifiers were concerned to restrict the government from establishing its own religion, but they could never have imagined that government would get into the business of, in effect, establishing atheism as the government’s non-religion. But that’s pretty much where we find ourselves today.

Yes, teachers cannot constitutionally endorse a particular religion, coerce beliefs, or entangle themselves in their students’ intimate personal religious choices. But they legally can, and each day should, teach religion as a core, vital and profound subject.

David Oedel teaches constitutional law at Mercer University.

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