by Colleen Carroll Campbell
The latest salvo in America’s war over prayer in public schools was fired in Illinois [in early November], when atheist activist Rob Sherman sued his daughter’s suburban Chicago district to protest a new state law that mandates a daily moment of silence. Sherman and his 14-year-old daughter, Dawn, said the 15-second silent period observed in her high school is interrupting her education.
The Shermans have a habit of sweating the small stuff. Dawn successfully campaigned to scratch “God Bless America” from her school’s homecoming song list this fall. Her father has battled to remove religious symbols from city seals, sever the link between the Boy Scouts and a local police department and stop student recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
Like most of his crusades, the law Sherman is battling now is more symbolic than substantive. Even its defenders do not claim that a few seconds of silence will transform public schools into havens of piety and order.
But both sides know that symbolic laws can have serious consequences. Since 1947, when the US Supreme Court first began defining how states should handle religion in schools, the courts have waged a vigorous campaign to secularize public education. Through a series of rulings on largely symbolic matters, judges have sent a powerful message that religious faith is something citizens should keep to themselves.
That message does not match the vision of America’s founding fathers. Contrary to claims by revisionist historians, the founders did not see the First Amendment as a way to purge religion from the public square. They saw it as a way to prevent the establishment of a state church that threatened to stifle authentic religious expression and make religion subordinate to the state.
The founders considered religion essential to America’s character and crucial to the endurance of a vibrant, virtuous democracy. George Washington said “religion and morality are indispensable supports” to political prosperity.
John Adams warned that our Constitution was designed “only for a religious and moral people” and is “wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Even Thomas Jefferson, patron saint of American secularists, professed respect for religion’s role in public life. As president, he attended church services at the US Capitol and provided the Marine Band to play for them at public expense.
Strict separationists cite Jefferson’s reference to a “wall of separation between Church and State” as the key to interpreting the First Amendment’s establishment clause. But he was not in the United States when the founders were drafting the First Amendment, and his phrase is not in the Constitution.
It appears in a private letter Jefferson wrote more than a decade after the amendment was drafted.
Such inconvenient facts have not stopped secularists from invoking the founders as they seek to banish all religious influences from public life and public schools. Thanks to activist judges, they have succeeded in making many public schools places where condoms are distributed but Christmas carols are banned, and where school officials punish teachers for leaving Bibles on their desks, football coaches for joining their players in prayer and valedictorians for thanking God at graduation.
Surveys find that the public resents such extreme secularization efforts. Proselytizing and force-fed Bible verses have no place in public schools, but most Americans can distinguish between catechism classes and 15-second silent periods.
Those who cannot are free to persuade their fellow citizens and elected representatives of their views. Such persuasion is less glamorous than litigation. But it can teach students more valuable lessons about the challenges of religious pluralism, the demands of democratic self-governance and the right to free expression that belongs to believers and atheists alike.
Colleen Carroll Campbell is our newest Voices editorial board member. Colleen and her physician husband live in St. Louis, and she is engaged in many worthy Catholic efforts notably, the “Faith and Culture” television series for EWTN (she recently interviewed Sister Nirmala, Mother Teresa’s successor as head of the Missionaries of Charity).
She is the author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Loyola Press, 2002); and she writes a regular op-ed column for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where the article above was published in the November 1, 2007 edition. Visit her web site: www.colleen-campbell.com.
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