Freedom of religion – not freedom “from” religion

Flickr / Marc Cornelis

A criticism I often hear of Christians is that we are so “sheltered.” Public opinion today seems to associate Christianity with narrow-mindedness, intolerance or a fear of new ideas.

So I find it rather confusing that organizations like the Freedom from Religion Foundation feel the need to intervene in public schools across the country, regardless of whether there were any complaints, in order to make sure students are not allowed to hear any perspective on religious belief besides the nontheism they advocate.

The Baylor Lariat’s editorial (“‘Chaplain’ title not vital to minister,” Sept. 5) told the story of Pastor Troy Schmidt, a volunteer chaplain for Olympia High School in Florida. The foundation sent a letter to the school district complaining about Schmidt’s spiritual counseling of players on the team.

The foundation says it wants to protect students from a volunteer chaplain who apparently wants to “force [his] religion onto other people’s children.” This is a gross misrepresentation of the truth. There is no evidence that Schmidt was trying to force students to believe anything.

“The only question any of us should be asking is about what is best for the children,” says the Lariat editorial. I agree. Was it best to shelter the children from any perspective on religion other than the nontheistic viewpoint the foundation claims to promote?

The foundation is doing nothing to help the welfare of the children by changing the title of “chaplain” to “life coach.”

The mission of the foundation is quite clear – to promote nontheism. But it appears they also want to ridicule Christians. On the “Open Letter to Troy Schmidt” found on their website, they post an old picture of Pastor Schmidt with a controversial rock star, with no apparent purpose other than to make him look bad. The organization continuously refers to their views as “freethought” – implying that those who believe in religion are not able to think freely for themselves.

The legal analysis is as equally questionable as the personal attacks. The foundation’s letter to the school district repeatedly refers to Schmidt’s actions as an “unconstitutional endorsement of religion.” But looking at the actual Constitution tells a different story. The First Amendment says clearly, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This phrase has been interpreted to apply to school districts (not just Congress) by a slew of recent Supreme Court decisions expanding the definition of “separation of church and state.”

The phrase “separation of church and state” first gained prominent legal power in 1947, when Justice Hugo Black wrote the Supreme Court’s opinion in Everson v. Board of Education. Justice Black relied not on the Constitution’s words, but on a quote by Thomas Jefferson about a “wall of separation between church and state.”

But if Jefferson had actually intended the term “wall” to prohibit any government influence whatsoever in religion, why did he support using federal funds to build churches and support missionaries to the Indians? Why did he propose bills as a state legislator in Virginia to support a public day of prayer?

The idea that school district volunteers were included in the term “Congress” in the Constitution’s language is quite a stretch. All 50 state constitutions still mention God. Does that mean every state is violating the First Amendment and “forcing religion” upon its citizens? Many would argue no.

Prohibiting school volunteers from mentioning God is a victory for the proponents of nontheism, but the foundation fails to realize that promoting nontheism in schools is in fact arguing for their own worldview. They put forward their own theory of religion – that it is not worth discussing.

Some of my teachers often advocated for a specific perspective on history, science or politics that I did not agree with. But rather than suing them, I allowed their different perspectives to inform my reasoning and enhance my critical thinking.

The foundation argues that no one remotely affiliated with a public school should be allowed to disagree with the nontheistic viewpoint. And we’re supposed to think that Christians are sheltered?

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4 responses to “Freedom of religion – not freedom “from” religion

  1. You might take a different look if this was a Muslim or Buddhist clergyperson coming onto public school property to “pray with” or “counsel” students. Freedom of Religion applies everywhere in a secular country, including public schools. The issue you miss is that the minute you mix specified faiths with public education someone needs to defend true religious freedom (not just Christian freedom). I agree with you that different “perspectives” should be discussed, but in appropriate and carefully monitored contexts (in other words, we’re not talking about Preaching here). Christians need to stop crying wolf every time a court, Americans United, FFRF or any others call them on trying to play by other rules other than the ones established for everyone. Oh, and they might remember “do unto others” while they’re at it.

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