Friday, August 31, 2007

Carrying Your Freedom of Religion Outside of Your Church

Jon Sanders from the John Locke Foundation addresses a school's recent choice to discipline a girl for mentioning Jesus in her Valedictorian address (see my other post here):
The First Amendment protects individuals' rights of religion, speech, assembly, and petition. Religious freedom is the very first freedom it secures against government interference. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" (sealing citizens against the fear of a State Church), "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

It should not escape anyone's notice that the Free Exercise clause is immediately followed by the prohibition against Congress (and by application, all government) "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." These all proceed in logical order. A free individual is free to believe, follow, and express his faith, and it follows that he is free to speak and publish as he pleases, meet with whom he pleases, and not be hindered even from airing grievances with the government.

No "Separation Clause" there; that phrase hails from Pres. Thomas Jefferson's January 1, 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. Jefferson used the phrase "a wall of separation between Church & State" to describe what the First Amendment had accomplished, so that the Baptists need not fear state governments' declarations of days of prayer and fasting as abridging their religious rights. The First Amendment protects religious expression even by individuals in government, and even in public halls and government buildings – an idea Pres. Jefferson solidified by concluding his letter with a reference to "the common father and creator of man."

And this is true liberty – allowing all manner of religious expression. It is the cardinal opposite of the current teaching on the First Amendment as it pertains to schools and government; i.e., forbidding all manner of religious expression. That, of course, is tyranny.

Follow the coercion. If a teacher or administrator forces students, regardless of creed, to hew to his religious beliefs, then that would be an unconstitutional abridgment of their religious rights. If a teacher or administrator cited a personal belief in God -- or a personal disbelief in God -- without any response forced upon the students, then no First Amendment rights would have been violated. The former involves coercion, the latter doesn't.

Where was the coercion in Monument? Was it used against the audience hearing a student's declaration of belief in Jesus Christ and encouraging her listeners to join her? Were they prevented from leaving or forced to agree or pledge fealty? Or was it used against the student? Does the First Amendment protect government officials forcing a specific kind of speech – a specifically worded apology – from someone under their power?

Follow the coercion. That's where you can see the tyranny that our Founders sought to protect us against.


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