Thursday, April 17, 2008

Just How Much Will We Tolerate?

People who encourage removing any reference to religion from public life do so by pointing to Thomas Jefferson's metaphor "separation of church and state" and by relying on the First Amendment. Also, the 14th Amendment could be read to mean that the First Amendment applies to the states, not just the federal government.

The first five words of the First Amendment are, "Congress shall make no law..." (emphasis mine). Applied to the states, that would seem to mean that the state legislature shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. In other words, if we accept that the 14th Amendment really passes everything down to the states, that means neither the state nor federal governments may:
1) make a law establishing religion
2) prohibit the free exercise of religion

The 14th Amendment's purpose was to extend the Constitutional rights of the citizens down to the state level. In other words, a state may not remove a right that is granted by the U.S. Constitution. In my opinion, we all have a Constitutional right to freely exercise our religion.

Now consider the case of the football coach whose team prays before a game. The coach would kneel and and bow his head during these student-led prayers. However, the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia just decided that he may not do so. (They did not specify if he is supposed to leave the room, stand at attention, or what during these prayers.)

This coach's board of education had a policy banning staff from joining student-led prayers. The 3rd Circuit is saying that law is constitutionally acceptable. The opinions from the Court made it clear that the core issue was the coach seeming to endorse a religion by bowing his head and/or kneeling. The board's lawyer said that a school's staff must not appear to endorse religion in any way. As a Christian, I bow my head during others' prayers out of respect either for God or for the other people's religious beliefs. To me it is a natural act, and it has been treated that way through most of our country's history.

This story is a remarkably good example of what drives many (usually conservative) politicians to talk about the need to curb judicial activism. Courts at all levels are not supposed to extend laws. There are supposed to interpret them and make sure they are constitutional. It is a very, very long reach to say that the First Amendment was ever intended to limit recognition of religion. If so, how then could we have a NATIONAL holiday of Christmas? If so how could the U.S. Constitution not count Sunday during time-sensitive specifications for things like the President's timeframe for signing laws?

As I pointed out above it can be said that (even with the 14th Amendment) it is only the U.S. Congress and state legislatures that are prohibited from making laws about religion. That argument would say that a school board is not constrained in the same way. I would have no problem with that logic if it were used evenly on both sides of this subject. But the carry-down logic is usually extended to all levels of government in order to purge religion recognition and practice from county and city board, schools, and almost any institution that is associated with a government body.

I suppose my biggest objection is that our Courts so often focus so much on the establishment clause of the First Amendment that they trample on the free exercise clause. Both clauses are part of the same sentence.

First Amendment Religion Clauses:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion [establishment clause], or prohibiting the free exercise thereof [free exercise clause]...

The full story is here:
MSNBC News Story

1 comment:

CrypticLife said...

There's some interesting dicta in that case indicating that if he had been just bowing his head out of general respect it would be permissible.

This coach had a history of proselytizing, which was part of why the decision went the way it did.

Note that there were two concurring opinions which disagreed with the dicta.