- The Washington Times - Monday, November 13, 2000

Some, not all, religious leaders denounced last term's Supreme Court decision that school-encouraged prayers before football games are unconstitutional violating the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, the separation of church and state. The debate continues amid increasing support for more religious influence in politics.

In dissent, Chief Justice William Rehnquist, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia, charged that the majority's opinion bristles with hostility to all things religious in public life. Many citizens feel the same way and are now violating the Supreme Court's decision, especially in the South.

Vigorously disagreeing with that furious view was the Baptist Joint Committee in Washington, which has been a consistent, lucid advocate of the First Amendment's free exercise of religion guarantee. The Baptist Joint Committee is supported by Baptist churches in the United States, the Religious Liberty Council, and Southern Baptist state conventions.

Melissa Rogers, general counsel of the Baptist Committee, points out that the facts of the Santa Fe case show clearly that the school was heavily involved in establishing and overseeing the policy and encouraging prayer.

But didn't the majority of the students vote to have the prayer? Yes, Miss Rogers continued, but using the voting process to advance the religious views of the majority of the students against the consciences of the minority violates a primary purpose of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause to protect the rights of members of minority religions. And, I would add, the rights of those who have no religion.

This Supreme Court decision does not at all mean that praying has been banished from public schools. Melissa Rogers explains that prayers may be offered individually or by groups of fans and students (including football team members) before, during or after the game, so long as the religious expression occurs without school involvement.

Miss Rogers goes on with an illumination of fundamental American religious liberty that should be framed on the walls of principals, superintendents and school boards across the nation:

We should and must continue to keep government out of the prayer business. Using government coercion to encourage participation in religious exercises strikes at the heart of our Constitution's guarantee of religious liberty and trivializes a sacred act. Placing the government's stamp of approval on some religions and not others is like holding a match to the powder keg of our pluralistic nation.

Accordingly, she says, in its Santa Fe decision, the Supreme Court helped rather than harmed the cause of religious liberty. That's worth remembering in the future controversies about separation of church and state.

This crucial separation of church and state goes beyond religion. As historian Irving Brant wrote about the Bill of Rights, the Framers knew what they were doing. English history had demonstrated to them that without complete religious liberty, without freedom of conscience, and separation of church and state, there could be no freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of assembly.

I hope that the Santa Fe decision will lead the Supreme Court to make clear another constitutionally protected dimension of religious liberty. As a reporter, I have covered many cases involving public school valedictorians who as is often required have to get the principal's prior approval of the graduation speech they want to give.

If that student's speech includes his or her thanks to parents, particular teachers and to Jesus Christ, the reference to Christ is censored. This is a violation of the free exercise of religion clause of the First Amendment.

The content of such a speech is entirely created by the student. There is no coercion by any agent of the state the principal, the superintendent of schools, or the school board. I cannot imagine that Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, or any other Framer of the Constitution would have objected to a student freely expressing his or her religious faith.

Some law school deans and professors have told me that a religious reference would be unconstitutional because there is a captive audience at graduation ceremonies. However, the valedictorian giving thanks to Jesus is not proselytizing. He or she is speaking only personally, not in the name of the state. A valedictorian should also be able to give thanks to the God of the Old Testament or to Muhammad.

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