- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 13, 2005

The very first words of the Bill of Rights, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” are too often being turned upside down in actual practice. Ordinary majorities of folks, in ordinary acts of community, are being prohibited from even a casual and momentary exercise of religion.

As this school year ended, the Fairfax County, Va., school district issued these instructions: “Principals and other staff members may not be speakers at a baccalaureate, regardless of whether it is held at the school or elsewhere.” Baccalaureate services, by definition, include prayer and some form of sermon to the school grads and guests in attendance.

“Under the Constitution of the United States,” the edict erroneously continued, “Fairfax County Public Schools has an obligation to maintain separation between church and state. Because teachers and administrators are highly visible representatives of the school, their speaking at a baccalaureate service — which typically includes religious elements — can be misconstrued. [We are] working on a case-by-case basis to find workable solutions that will allow teachers to speak as private citizens.”

Now there’s work worthy of the highest school administrative salaries. Can we ask just how the district administrators arrived at their erudite legal opinion? How long did they deliberate before cracking the whip this way against school principals betraying any personal religiosity?

Implementing prohibitions this way in actual practice is making it the role of government — in this case, school district folks somewhere between dogcatchers and city councilmen in rank—to prohibit the free exercise of religion by any individual or assembly of citizens inclined to exercise it at the “wrong” time or place.

Simply put, the prevention of any individuals from having to suffer witnessing a religious moment or display on public time or public property is grounds for government at any level to implement prohibitions.

Conducting society with common public gatherings constrained by so much minority “protection” robs a lot of majorities of some natural joys of community. It’s akin to conducting a wedding reception without the possibility of a toast — in order to respect the minority of delicate, former alcoholics or teetotalers who may be in attendance.

High courts’ rulings are understood imprecisely enough throughout the land that big decisions often change the atmosphere more broadly than foreseen. After the 1963 Supreme Court ruling against required Bible reading in public schools, for instance, many teachers began avoiding Biblical historical references.

Atmosphere matters tremendously in modern America, because all of us must breathe pretty much the same one. High court decisions shape root and branch of government, and they likewise shape those of our very culture. To ponder the obvious example in real time, try predicting the full impact of a high court redefinition of marriage, the institution that predates both church and state.

I try with some success to understand the “theocracy” fear that some of the liberal crowd holds toward us religious believers. Can they now try to understand our fear of state suppression of the public religiosity without which modern political and civil rights might never have arrived?

If judges are adequately skilled with written logic, they can “discover” things not explicitly in the Constitution’s text and make them thenceforth constitutional (as when the state Supreme Court required the Massachusetts legislature to recognize “marriages” between same-sex partners.)

No branch of government and no army has more power to shape civilization so irrevocably as the judiciary. Many of us of strong political persuasion tremble at the thought of our opponents having their way with the confirmation of judicial nominations.

When the dust settles, citizens in democracies have a duty to seek consensus and not treat their opponents as permanent enemies. But amidst the historic struggle now upon us to confirm a conservative president’s highest judicial appointment, consider the unfortunate Fairfax County school principals with their privilege to speak at baccalaureate services now denied by their excitable district officials.

In debating the future of the judiciary, the issue of “theocracy” is a red herring. Freedom for the state from religious harassment wasn’t the reason for the First Amendment. Freedom for religion from state harassment was.

Pat Boone, a veteran entertainer, is national spokesperson for the 60 Plus Association of Arlington, Va., a leading senior-citizen advocacy organization.

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