LETTER: The First Amendment protects religious people and it protects nonreligious people.
As a pastor, I am grateful for the annual Clinton YMCA Youth Prayer Breakfast and for the gifted speakers who bring the Gospel to young people in our community.
I disagree with the Freedom from Religion Foundation that holding an event like this on school property is illegal. Federal law dictates that, if the school opens the building to other groups during off-hours, religious groups may also use the facility as long as they are not given preferential treatment, including, for example, a reduction in any building use fees.
There are, in fact, many ways that students attending public schools can express their faith. For example, students may pray alone or in a group; but it must be voluntarily and non-disruptive. Students may also distribute religious literature, but is subject to reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. Students may include religious themes in their schoolwork as long as those religious references are germane to the assignment. Students may attempt to persuade their peers concerning religious topics, just as they may political topics. Harassment, however, is not permissible. A “no thanks” must end the conversation.
Schools may teach about religion, including the Bible or other scripture, the history of religion, the Bible-as-literature, and the role of religion in the United States and other countries. Schools are to be neutral with respect to religion. In other words, schools may expose students to religious views but may not impose any particular view. And finally, students may also form religious clubs when other non-curriculum related groups are allowed. However, outside adults may not lead or regularly attend club meetings, and teachers may be present only to monitor the meetings.
These are just a few examples of what students can do to express their faith while in school. The caveats listed with each reflect simple courtesy. As the saying goes, “My right to swing my arm ends where your nose begins.” The genius of the First Amendment is that it balances the guaranteed right to express one’s faith (“Free Exercise”) with the right not to have government promote one belief over another (“No Establishment”).
Let those of us who are people of faith preserve this can do spirit among students by obeying the relevant laws that exist for good reason. As Brent Walker, retired Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty reminds us, “I cannot ask government to promote my religion if I don’t want government to promote somebody else’s religion; and I cannot permit government to hinder somebody else’s religion if I don’t want government to hinder my religion.” My Baptist forbears were deeply involved in the effort to include the First Amendment in our Constitution because of the persecution they had experienced as dissenters from the state church. The First Amendment protects religious people and it protects nonreligious people. After all, religious freedom doesn’t mean much when you’re not allowed to not be religious.
Rev. Douglas Shenton
Associate Pastor of Discipleship & Outreach
First Baptist Church, Clinton