Tags: What | the | First | Amendment | Not | For

What the First Amendment Is Not For

Tuesday, 24 May 2005 12:00 AM

The very first words of the Bill of Rights, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," are being turned upside down in practice. Ordinary majorities of folks, in ordinary acts of community, are being prohibited from even a casual and momentary exercise of religion.

The district instruction to its high schools continued: "Under the Constitution of the United States [


Must citizens who happen to be school principals content themselves with freedom of religion dependent on government permission? In this case "government" is school district folks somewhere between notaries and city councilmen in rank and esteem. In Fairfax County you can be at their mercy on the question of where the precise meaning of the First Amendment may extend.

Is this to be our lot in modern America? Simply put, the prevention of any individuals having to suffer witnessing a religious moment or display, on public time or public property, is grounds for government at any level to implement prohibitions. So is keeping the paranoid individual from feeling that a public administrator's religiosity signals the like-mindedness of the whole government.

Implementing prohibitions this way in actual practice is making it the government's role to

The legalists (

Conducting society with common public gatherings constrained by so much legal fixation on minority rights robs a lot of majorities of some natural joys of community. It would be like conducting a wedding reception without the possibility of a toast – in order to respect the minority of non-drinking alcoholics or teetotalers who may be in attendance (

In the real world of 2005, anti-religious constraints on believers' individual and community lives have become only too familiar. (Think the Christmas season.) And painstaking government avoidance of public religiosity has the practical effect of "prohibiting the free exercise" of many variations on "an establishment of religion."

My own words sound extreme to me here. Still, they would be false only if "free" were redefined. The way things have drifted, making religion on the public square ever more ecumenical suffices only if there's no hint of any Jesus or Mohammed or Abraham explicit enough to be recognized.

What's OK, then? Ethical monotheism? I'll find you a minority it will offend!

High courts' rulings aren't delineated throughout the land precisely enough for big decisions not to change the atmosphere more broadly than foreseen. After the 1963 Supreme Court ruling against required Bible reading in public schools, for instance, many high school history teachers began avoiding biblical accounts of the Jewish exodus from Egypt.

There have been cases where doing legal battle with local school administrators was necessary even for voluntary praying to be permitted on school property.

Atmosphere matters tremendously in modern America, because all of us must breathe pretty much the same one. High court decisions do shape root and branch of official government, and they likewise shape those of our very culture. If you want to ponder the obvious example in real time, try predicting the full impact of a high court redefinition of marriage, the institution that predates both church and state.

I try with some success to understand the "theocracy" fear that some of the liberal crowd hold toward us religious believers. Can they now try to understand our fear of state suppression of the public religiosity without which modern political and civil rights might never have arrived?

If judges are adequately skilled with written logic, they can "discover" things not explicitly in the Constitution's text and make them thenceforth constitutional. (As when the state supreme court required the Massachusetts Legislature to recognize "marriages" between same-sex partners.)

No one branch of government and no army has easier power to shape civilization so irrevocably, so any of us of strong political persuasion may tremble if our opponents have their way confirming judicial nominations.

When the dust settles, citizens in democracies have a duty to seek consensus and not treat their opponents as permanent enemies. But amidst the historic struggle now upon us to confirm a conservative president's highest judicial appointments, consider the unfortunate Fairfax County school principals with their privilege to speak at baccalaureate services now denied by their excitable district officials.

In debating the future of the judiciary, the issue of "theocracy" is a red herring. Freedom for the state from religious harassment wasn't the reason for the First Amendment. Freedom for religion from state harassment was.


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The very first words of the Bill of Rights, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," are being turned upside down in practice.Ordinary majorities of folks, in ordinary acts of community, are being...
Tuesday, 24 May 2005 12:00 AM
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