EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third in a series of commentaries is adapted from articles that ran in consecutive issues of Report from the capital. Previous installments challenged myths that the separation of church and state is not implied in the Constitution, that America was founded as a Christian nation, that the founders’ intent was only to forbid establishment of a particular state church and competing claims about their faith.
By Brent Walker
(ABP) — Myth No. 6: The separation of church and state has resulted in God being kicked out of the public schools and banished from the public square.
What a thing to say — to presume that God can be kicked out of anywhere. No, as James Dunn has said, “God Almighty has a perfect attendance record.” It is only state-sponsored religion that has been banned from the public schools. Voluntary student religious expression is not only not prohibited, it is protected — as long as it does not disrupt the educational process and respects other students’ rights not to participate.
A partial listing of the religious activities that are permitted in the public schools — voluntary prayer, teaching about religion, studying religious holidays, Bible clubs before and after school, wearing religious garb — proves the point. There are numerous national consensus statements by religious and education organizations that outline the avenues of permissible religious expression.
Yes, educators still get it wrong sometimes. Some principals want to return to the “sacred public schools” of yesteryear and others are ready to overreact and create “naked public schools” where every vestige of religion is stripped away. But the model that most are using, consistent with constitutional standards, is the “civil public schools” where the government does not promote religion but takes religion seriously in the curriculum and, where possible, accommodates the free exercise needs of students.
To say God has been banished from the public square is also a huge misconception. The institutional separation of church and state does not mean the segregation of religion from politics or God from government or strip the right of people of faith to speak forcefully in the public square. It only means government cannot pass laws that have the primary purpose or effect that advances religion.
Religious speech in public places is commonplace. From bumper stickers, to billboards, to post-football-game prayer huddles, and on and on. It seems like every month new cover stories on religion and religious themes appear in national news magazines in addition to religious programming on television, radio and the Internet. Religious themes pervade movies. Some seminaries nowadays even have courses on theology in the cinema. John Grisham’s new novel, “The Confession,” has religion in it at every twist and turn. (He is a Baptist, you know.) “God Bless America” is sung during the seventh inning stretch in almost every major league baseball park and is an obligatory conclusion to the speeches of every politician who wants to keep on being a politician.
“Civil religion” in public places is alive and well. In a culture as religious as ours, we should not be surprised that references to God pop up in our pledge, our mottos, our songs and our civil ceremonies and public rituals. These brief governmental expressions of religion (sometimes called “ceremonial deism”) will usually pass constitutional muster as long as they do not mandate religious worship, single out a particular religion for favored treatment or compel religious conformity. Some of us may have theological concerns about civil religion because it can be abused for political gain, morph into an idolatry of nationalism or result in the trivialization of religion. But the constitutional doctrine of church-state separation does not prohibit various expressions of civil religion.
Before retiring, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s last church-state opinion reminds us why we should defeat the myths:
“[T]he goal of the [Religion] Clauses is clear: to carry out the Founders’ plan of preserving religious liberty to the fullest extent possible in a pluralistic society. By enforcing the Clauses, we have kept religion a matter for the individual conscience, not for the prosecutor or bureaucrat. At a time when we see around the world the violent consequences of the assumption of religious authority by government, Americans may count themselves fortunate: Our regard for constitutional boundaries has protected us from similar travails, while allowing private religious exercise to flourish. … Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: Why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”
Justice O’Connor is right. The separation of church and state is good for both!