[ Note: This case was decided on 3 June 1996 by Judge Neil B. Biggers, Jr. For the judge's ruling and opinion, see below. After some deliberation, the Pontotoc County school board on 3 July 1996 voted unanimously not to appeal the court's decision. On 30 May 1997 Judge Biggers ordered the Pontotoc County school district to pay $144,200 in legal fees. Also, on 6 May 1997, school officials, including superintendent Jerry Horton, led prayers at a "school pride day" assembly at which students were required to be present, in apparent violation of the judge's order. ]
[ See also my Reply to Sid Salter on school prayer. ]
This week the "school prayer case" opened in U.S. District Court in Oxford, Mississippi. This case marks a turning point for the Constitution and for the principles of liberty and tolerance that this country has always enshrined, though not always practiced. The efforts of the Pontotoc County Schools to maintain daily intercom devotionals, to teach a class with the Bible as the sole textbook, and to hold teacher/student prayer sessions in the school gym, fly in the face of law and the Constitution, make a mockery of Mississippi's own Christian traditions, and run counter to the ideal of giving parents primary responsibility for the religious and moral upbringing of their children.
More disturbing is the hypocritical, self-righteous tone of those who, trumpeting "religious freedom," attempt to impose their own brand of indoctrination on their neighbors' children. While enlisting the support of elected officials, these pharisaic demagogues are attempting to portray plaintiff Lisa Herdahl as an "outside agitator" for insisting on the rights that all Americans take for granted. These so-called leaders are succeeding only in bringing their own faith and their region into disrepute.
What do Americans say about school prayer? Many Americans are descended from immigrants who came to these shores to escape government interference in religion. While some colonists set up equally oppressive state churches of their own, and persecuted Quakers, hanged "witches," and collected taxes from nonbelievers to pay their preachers, the simple fact of religious pluralism in colonies like Pennsylvania and Rhode Island made it imperative that people of different faiths learn to mind their own business. When the First Amendment proclaimed the ideal of separation of church and state, there were still churches and ministers supported by taxes in several states, but gradually these were abolished, as the principle took hold that the government should not attempt to interfere or take sides on religious issues. By flouting this principle, Pontotoc County school officials are pandering to bigotry while weakening the "family values" they claim to promote.
What do Christians say about school prayer? When Mississippi Baptists began meeting in Natchez in the last days of Spanish rule, they had to do so in secret—Protestant churches could not be built, and those who attended religious meetings were subject to arrest. Baptists have always been among the staunchest defenders of religious liberty and strict separation of church and state. Among Colonial religious leaders, the shining example of religious toleration was the sometime Baptist Roger Williams. Excluded from Puritan Massachusetts for his beliefs, he and his followers took refuge in Rhode Island, where he might easily have become a New World Ayatollah. Instead he established complete freedom of religion and invited Quakers, Jews, and other despised outcasts to settle. Why? As a Separatist, Williams believed that any interference by even a sympathetic government would bring impurity into the gathered, covenanted people of God, and that this was a greater threat than the presence of outsiders. He believed, and wrote, that "forced prayer stinks in God's nostrils." Later, the Baptist Elder John Leland formed a coalition with freethinkers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in order to win religious freedom in Virginia and avoid the establishment of Episcopal rule. Ever since then, Baptists have always been the strongest opponents of school prayers and other watered-down pseudo-religious claptrap. Compare this honorable Baptist tradition with the antics of the Rev. Don McCutchen, who says that here in the "Bible Belt" the Herdahls should just go along with the majority. Is he aware how grave a sin of dishonesty and blasphemy he and they would commit if they were to abandon the principles of Williams and Leland and follow his advice instead?
What does the Bible say about school prayer? It has a lot to say about insincere state-sanctioned religion: "I hate your feast-days; I despise your solemn assemblies, I will not accept your offerings" (Amos 5)—the Lord loves righteousness and justice more than vain official ceremonies. Jesus, too, had strong words for self-righteous religious leaders: "Whited sepulchers, that appear beautiful on the outside, but are inwardly full of death and uncleanness!" (Matthew 23) Of those who make a show of praying in public, he said "they have their reward." Instead, he taught his own followers, "go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret." (Matthew 6)
Separation of church and state is good for Christians. In England and Sweden, there is a state church; clergymen are seen as bureaucrats, churches are empty, and nobody cares. In America, there is complete separation of church and state, and religion is booming! A far greater percentage of Americans attend church regularly and believe in basic Christian doctrines than in those countries where the government prescribes prayers and pays preachers. State approval is always the kiss of death for true religion. Those politicians who want government to endorse religion are seeking money and power, not mercy and righteousness.
Separation of church and state is good for America. In Pontotoc County a Protestant American family is shunned and ostracized for sticking to their principles. But this country, even North Mississippi, embraces many faiths. Are the self-appointed guardians of "family values" ready to prostrate themselves toward Mecca in the school gym with their Muslim neighbors? Are they willing to hear Buddhist sutras over the school intercom, offer incense and gifts to Hindu gods in the school auditorium, or light candles before images of the saints before exams or football games? The only workable solution in a diverse and democratic society is for parents to bring up their children according to their chosen faith and tradition, and for others to mind their own business. Nobody is preventing the faithful from praying silently at any time. The so-called "Religious Freedom" party portrays Christians as a "persecuted majority" because they can no longer use peer pressure to force others to do likewise; in fact, they are insulting Christians and Mississippians, creating an obstacle to tolerance and mutual understanding, and encouraging a dangerous violation of our laws and traditions.D. W. Steel, Oxford, Mississippi
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