In the course of the last few weeks, the Freedom from Religion Foundation based out of Madison, Wisconsin has threatened the University of Tennessee and the Kountze Independent School District in southeast Texas with lawsuits if they do not “Cease and Desist” activities they consider to be inappropriate and/or unconstitutional.
In the case of the Kountze Independent School District, the issue is the use of banners displaying Bible verses through which the football team runs when taking the field at the start of a game. These banners were made by the cheerleaders and were used for three straight weeks at the beginning of this year’s football season. The school has already informed the cheerleaders they cannot use Bible verses on any future banners. In the case of the University of Tennessee, the issue is the opening prayer said before football games, and other activities occurring on campus. The opening prayer is a long-standing tradition at the University of Tennessee, and the Chancellor of the University, Jimmy Cheek, has responded by stating, “…it will stand by the tradition of prayer before UT events.” Chancellor Cheek made reference to a Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that specifically held that “nonsectarian prayer at public university events does not violate the First Amendment.”
The Freedom from Religion Foundation is arguing that these activities violate the principle of “Separation of Church and State,” and as such should not be allowed in public. I am not a constitutional law expert, however, the Constitution of the United States does not provide for the concept of freedom from religion, nor does the phrase “separation of church and state,” appear anywhere in the text of the Constitution. The First Amendment addresses the concept of freedom of religion, as well as, the individual’s right to freedom of speech. In order to ensure an accurate understanding of the First Amendment I have included a copy below:
Amendment I to the Constitution of the United States
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Two elements of the First Amendment referred to as the “Establishment Clause,” and the “Exercise Clause,” are intended to forbid the government from restricting the religious freedom of citizens of the United States. The First Amendment guarantees each of us the right to believe and practice our religious beliefs without fear of government persecution. The First Amendment also serves to forbid the establishment of state-sponsored religions or the passage of laws intended to favor one religious institution over another. This amendment also allows for citizens to exercise their individual right to worship according to their beliefs. The idea of forbidding the government from endorsing a particular religion establishes the philosophical underpinning from which the concept of “separation of church and state” originated.
These statements guaranteeing our religious freedoms are the same statements used by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and other similar organizations, when they seek to limit the rights of groups and individuals to practice, or simply acknowledge, their religious beliefs in public settings. It must be recognized that the United States is possibly the most religiously diverse society in the history of western civilization. It is this diversity and tolerance for the beliefs of others that makes it possible for each of us to live in peace with those who may not believe as we do, but also hold sacred the right of each individual to decide what they believe. Though we may not agree with each person’s choice of religious beliefs, this amendment ensures each of us with the right to “agree to disagree.”
It is my position that freedom of religion does not and cannot guarantee freedom from religion. Even the staunchest atheist when choosing to believe there is no God is acknowledging and practicing a religious belief. By taking the position that nonsectarian public prayer or the use of Bible verses in a public setting should not be allowed, they are placing their religious beliefs in a position of superiority over the beliefs of those who see those practices as acceptable. They are in essence attempting to establish themselves as a law unto themselves and dictate to others what they should be allowed to do rather than simply opting out of the activity themselves.
I welcome comments and dialog on this editorial. All I ask is that everyone remain respectful of each other and keep your comments “G-rated.” I want this site to be one everyone, regardless of age and background can enjoy so I will not tolerate the use of profanity or disrespectful language. As the Apostle Paul said “Let us reason together.” A thoughtful exchange of ideas can only make us all better in the long run.