[ Note: This essay is a reply to Sid Salter's syndicated column in the Jackson Clarion Ledger, The Oxford Eagle, and the University of Mississippi Daily Mississippian. See also my essay on the Pontotoc County school prayer case. ]
Sid Salter's syndicated columns are frequently marked by clear thinking and common sense. These qualities, however, are lacking in his recent essay on the school prayer debate (Scott County Times, September 9, 1996). Here in North Mississippi, a similar issue has recently been resolved by Judge Neil Biggers, in a thoughtful and judicious decision that neither party has seen fit to appeal. This ruling is in accordance with the U.S. Constitution, and with a growing consensus among religious, legal, and civil liberties groups on the role of religion in the public schools. Mr. Salter's column, on the other hand, is irresponsible and divisive, and seriously misrepresents the position of the ACLU and many others who oppose government-sponsored prayer, often for very real religious reasons.
As Judge Biggers reaffirmed in his ruling, prayer is legal in the public schools, and has never been forbidden. Students have the right to pray individually or in groups and to discuss their religious views with their peers. They may read Bibles or other scriptures, say blessings before meals, and pray before tests. In informal settings. such as the lunchroom, they may pray aloud, or discuss religious issues with willing listeners. Students may form religious clubs, and they may pray together on school grounds, or in the gym or designated areas, before or after school. Schools must make their facilities available to religious groups on the same terms that they do so for other community organizations. The First Amendment, in guaranteeing freedom of religion, does not limit the rights of citizens—it limits the right of the government to take sides for or against any religion. Teachers, whatever their own religious beliefs, can and should teach about the important role religion has played in American history, culture, and identity. As a music teacher, I direct performances of religious music; I strongly emphasize the religious inspiration and context of many musical masterworks. But I may not proselytize my students, or prescribe religious practices, or permit students to hold a religious service during school hours. The ACLU supports the current law, which gives parents, not government, the primary responsibility for the religious and moral upbringing of their children.
Some Christian groups prefer that public prayer be read from a book; others say it should not be read from a book, but inspired by the moment. In the eyes of some, prayer is valid only if offered "in the name of Jesus," while for others, such prayer cannot be valid. The concept of "non-sectarian" prayer is blasphemous and abhorrent to many Christians. The constitution does not permit the government to make decisions on these matters, or to take sides for or against any religion. Most Americans agree; we don't want governments deciding that our children shall participate in the exercises of someone else's religion, be it Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, or animist.
Salter expresses surprise that the ACLU raises no objections to observing vacations on religious holidays. In fact, the ACLU urges sensitivity in the matter of holidays, dietary restrictions, and religious garb. Mr. Salter should know that it was the witch-burning colony of Massachusetts, with its established Puritan church, that made it a crime to observe "pagan" holidays such as Christmas and Easter.
Salter credits Madelyn Murray O'Hair with changing a legitimate "separation of church and state" to "separation of church from state." He overestimates the importance of Mrs. O'Hair, who neither wrote nor amended the Consitution. While this phrase appears nowhere in the Bill of Rights, it was clearly the intent of its framers. In fact, the words Thomas Jefferson used (writing to Baptists suffering under the Connecticut religious establishment) were "a wall of separation between church and state." Jefferson, like Baptists and other evangelical minorities, believed that religion would prosper best without any interference or misguided endorsement from government. The flourishing state of religion in the United States today has proven him right.
While politicians like [Mississippi governor] Kirk Fordice and [attorney general] Mike Moore may be expected to puff and posture on the issue, it seems puzzling that Salter should be willing to fight what he acknowledges to be a losing battle on this issue. There is simply no evidence that "freedom of religion continues to be assaulted in the courts by those who advocate freedom from religion"—this is the bogus war-cry of someone who knows neither the ACLU nor Judge Biggers. This alarm is trumpeted by power-seeking demagogues who try to portray the diverse, vital, and prosperous religions of this nation as persecuted minorities, and who themselves have no commitment to freedom of religion for anyone but themselves. For a respected columnist to parrot such cynical and uninformed nonsense is hardly becoming—the readers of Mississippi deserve much better from Sid Salter.D. W. Steel, Oxford, Mississippi
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