Court Should Reject Misinterpretation of First Amendment
by Sean Tuffnell
December 14, 1999
Whether you choose to worship Allah or Buddha or prefer to deny the existence of a supreme being, you cannot deny the spiritual foundations of our people. It can be found inscribed on our national monuments, printed on our currency and ingrained in our culture. But that doesn't stop the controversy.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, a case dealing with student-led, student initiated prayer at high school football games in Texas. Will the court decide to protect citizens rights to worship freely, or decide that they should only do so only where the harmful messages of love, protection and faith can't reach those who become uncomfortable with such talk?
Is student initiated prayer on school property unconstitutional? Only if you buy into the proposition that the Founding Fathers really meant for the First Amendment to the Constitution to say that there should be no religious influences on public property.
This argument generates from a great distortion in the meaning of the First Amendment. But what does the constitution actually say? The First Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereofŠ" Only a lawyer or an activist could claim not to understand the clear meaning of those statements. The government is prohibited from setting up a state religion, such as Britain has, but no barriers will be erected against the free practice of any religion.
The question before the court is, if the public schools allow student-led, student-initiated prayer at a school function, such as a high school football game, is it tantamount to Congress making a law respecting the establishment of a religion? Clearly, this is a large jump to make. Just because the schools are supported with public funds does not mean that any presence, or any hint, of religion at a school function constitutes the state's establishment of religion.
To make that case, you would not only have to distort the meaning of the "establishment" clause, but also completely ignore the "free-exercise" clause. The free-exercise clause of the First Amendment precludes any prohibition on voluntary or student-initiated prayer.
How has this misinterpretation come about? The movement derives from a letter then President Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Danbury Baptists. The concept was then formalized by the Supreme Court's 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision, where Justice Black wrote, "In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and state.'"
But this again is a misreading. Jefferson never intended for all vestiges of religion and spirituality to be removed from government. Jefferson and the rest of the Founding Fathers meant to prevent organized religion from dictating law.
The other argument opponents of prayer make is that if it is allowed to take place openly, such as at a football game, someone who doesn't share the same faith as the one being spoken will either have to decide between not going to the game or feel uncomfortable because they are different than everyone else.
While I could argue that all high schoolers feel different at one time or another, shouldn't the government's primary responsibility be to protect the freedoms of all the students and not to force a national practice of atheism so that some might be spared having to hear something they don't agree with. That would be exactly the kind of forcing of a particular belief structure that the Separation of Church and State people say they want to prevent.