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First Amendment doesn't prevent practice of religion

Advocates of school-sponsored prayers at graduation ceremonies, such as the one at Washington High School last month, talk as if religion in this country were under siege.

They resent being told by the courts and the American Civil Liberties Union, whom they perceive as outsiders, that no one can utter a prayer from the podium during such an important rite of passage in the lives of their children.

In many communities, there is a strong sense among school prayer advocates that public schools are "their" schools. In their ideal world, they would consider it a moral triumph and saving grace if teachers led students in prayer before each class day.

If it were up to them, the ten commandments would be prominently displayed and creationism would replace evolution in science class. Because their religion, Christianity, is predominant in this country, they believe it is only fair that their views should prevail, and non-Christians, "soft Christians," atheists and free thinks should not be allowed to interfere with the wishes of the majority.

In their heart of hearts they sincerely believe that non-Christian children would only benefit from a "good Christian education" and, if properly evangelized, could be "saved." People who ascribe to these views most often identify with the religious right.

The barrier that the religious right has been unable to breech thus far, and which prevents school-sponsored prayer, is the wall of separation between church and state, a concept implicit in the First Amendment.

The amendment begins with the phrase, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..." Under this amendment, no government-supported institution, such as public schools, can appear to endorse or make anyone feel compelled to practice or accept a particular religion.

Our founding fathers understood that certain rights, such as religious beliefs, were personal and should be protected from the will of the majority. If the government were to endorse one particular religious view or practice over another, then the price of an education would be to pray, act, speak and think from the religious perspective of the majority. Any resistance would invite the kind of persecution with which religious dissenters have always been met when government and religion are not separated.

In some school districts where the separation of church and state is routinely ignored, people who have resisted attempts to include prayer at graduations, before sports events or during school have been harassed, intimidated and even confronted with death threats.

If religious crusaders successfully erase the line between church and state, such intolerance will become commonplace. If that happens, one wonders if those who are not comfortable with group prayer, yet are compelled to bow their heads or repeat Bible verses, will learn to love prayer or despise it. Will children conclude that religion is more about sanctimony than charity or that acts of public prostration are more praiseworthy than private communion?

While the First Amendment protects people from the religious majority, it does not prevent crusading Christians or anyone of any sectarian persuasion from practicing their religion. Students can even pray at school. As the judge in one school prayer case pointed out, "As long as there are tests in school, there will be prayers."

Moreover, a school meets approximately half the days in a year for about six or seven hours a day. If someone wishes to fill any of the rest of their time with individual or group devotional activities, evangelizing or religious indoctrination, they are free to do so. If parents want their children to participate in a baccalaureate commencement ceremony with a sermon and prayers, religious institutions may provide one. And, if people of a particular religious persuasion find the absence of their religion in the public schools too repugnant, they can rally like-minded believers to start their own private schools.

The student from Washington High School who stood up for her First Amendment rights and challenged the school board to follow the law should have been loudly applauded. Her actions were in the spirit of the Constitution, which, in our country, protects the rights of people to believe and practice their religion as they wish. Unless of course, people disregard the law and resort to harassment and intimidation.

Phil Smith is vice-chairman of the Local Spiritual Assembly, Baha'is of Bloomington.

©Copyright 2001, Pantagraph

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