“Religious Freedom” Laws, Inspirational Messages, and Religious Minorities

The idea of the United States as a pluralistic, secular, society where no single religious expression is enshrined has always gotten push-back, and experienced robust dissent over the years. To many, America is a “Christian” nation (sometimes a “Judeo-Christian” nation), and all others live here under their sufferance. The Rev. Dennis Terry’s recent comments at a Rick Santorum presidential rally typify the more vituperative side of this particular sentiment.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2emBxDOY7g

“I don’t care what the naysayers say. This nation was founded as a Christian nation. The god of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. There is only one God. There is only one God, and his name is Jesus. I’m tired of people telling me that I can’t say those words. I’m tired of people telling us as Christians that we can’t voice our beliefs or we can’t no longer pray in public. Listen to me. If you don’t love America, and you don’t like the way we do things, I’ve got one thing to say, get out! [...] We don’t worship Buddha, we don’t worship Mohammed, we don’t worship Allah. We worship God. We worship God’s son Jesus Christ.”

The Rev. Terry clearly articulates a popular view among conservative Christians concerning religious freedom. To these Christians, government-enforced secularism isn’t a neutral ethos, but a method of attacking their faith and limiting their free expression. In the minds of these Christians “religious freedom” means, in this time of demographic dominance, the right to let the majority dictate the religious norms of a society. Any deviance from that, in limiting prayer in schools, or sectarian prayer at government meetings, is a persecution of their church. To combat this “war on religion” (ie religion = Christianity) a variety of laws have been passed at the state level in order to “protect” the religious freedom of the overwhelming majority. A recent example is the new Florida law enabling students to give “inspirational messages” at school events.

“SB 98 states that its purpose “is to provide students with the opportunity for formal or ceremonious observance of an occasion or event.” Although “prayer” is never used in the bill, opponents claim it allows religious messages to be delivered in public schools. They also question allowing students to have an unrestrained venue to air their opinions at a school event.”

Such measures are almost always worded carefully to avoid legal challenge, though the wink-wink, nudge-nudge subtext is that it will allow majority Christian schools to have de facto sectarian Christian prayer so long as it’s a student willing to say it. As Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, put it: “legislators are clearly inviting Florida school boards to plunge into a legal swamp.” It’s a swamp that Tennessee seems ready to plunge into as well.

“The measure sponsored by Republican Rep. Andy Holt of Dresden was approved by the House Education Committee on a voice vote. The companion bill is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. Holt said he proposed the legislation after talking with a concerned school board member in his district. He said the proposal would allow school districts to develop a so-called “student speaker policy” for school officials to follow.”

Here’s the thing though, while such laws almost always privilege the majority religion, it also opens the door to expressions of non-Christian religion within public schools (at least if the law if applied fairly).  Prayers to Jesus are all well and good, but what happens when a Wiccan gives an “inspirational” message?

Rep. Richard Montgomery, a Sevierville Republican and chairman of the House Education Committee, said he likes the idea of the bill, but believes it’s going to cause an uproar when a student decides to discuss a not-so-popular religion, such as Wicca. ”You might have 1 percent that actually believe that way, and 99 percent don’t believe that way,” he said. “You’re going to have an uproar out of this world in a lot of communities.”

This sentiment was echoed by David Barkey, Religious Freedom Counsel for The Anti-Defamation League, when asked for comment on the new Florida law.

Protesters in Pensacola support highschool educators on September 17, 2009. The educators are on federal trial following the ACLU charge that they prayed in school. (Photo: Cheryl Casey / Shutterstock.com)

Protesters in Pensacola support highschool educators on September 17, 2009. The educators are on federal trial following the ACLU charge that they prayed in school. (Photo: Cheryl Casey / Shutterstock.com)

“Our public schools are for all children regardless of their religion. But this law could require children as young as five to observe prayers to Allah, Buddha, Jesus or other faiths contrary to their religious upbringing at mandatory student assemblies. It is completely contrary to our public schools’ inclusive nature, and the law will only serve to divide students, schools and communities along religious or other lines. In America, the question of one’s religion or faith is extremely personal and private. It is not a question that is put to the discretion of government or other people. To ensure all children’s religious freedom, we urge school districts not to implement this imprudent law.”

Despite these warnings, student “religious liberties” laws have already been passed in Arizona and Texas, places where the majority feels confident that these laws will act as proselytization tools of the majority faith. Think I’m overstating this? Don’t listen to me, listen to the Texas House Research Organization’s own analysis of the then-pending bill.

“The bill could serve as a tool to proselytize the majority religious view, Christianity, in Texas schools. The United States is a nation made up of people of many faiths. Children are required to attend school and should be permitted to do so without someone else’s religion being imposed on them … A school should be a religion-free zone – leaving religion for homes, places of worship, and individual hearts.”

In truth, the “a Wiccan might be allowed to invoke the Goddess publicly” scenario is more a gambit than a true threat. It can occasionally work to stymie Christian overreach into the public sphere, but in many other cases, those lone non-Christian students who speak out face incredible intimidation and threats. In most cases the tyranny of the majority, once unconstrained by the law, proceeds to do its level best to silence all dissenting voices through threats, intimidation, violence, or simply peer pressure. That said, this new wave of “student expression” laws aren’t, legally speaking, bullet-proof. There’s a new legal precedent being built that looks not just at the openness and neutrality of a law’s language, but how well it maintains a balance of religious and philosophical viewpoints.

Rhode Island teen Jessica Ahlquist, who was bullied and threatened out of her school after successfully challenging a Christian mural.

Rhode Island teen Jessica Ahlquist, who was bullied and threatened out of her school after successfully challenging a Christian mural.

“…legislative prayer must strive to be nondenominational so long as that is reasonably possible — itshould send a signal of welcome rather than exclusion. Itshould not reject the tenets of other faiths in favor of just one.Infrequent references to specific deities, standing alone, donot suffice to make out a constitutional case. But legislativeprayers that go further — prayers in a particular venue that repeatedly suggest the government has put its weight behinda particular faith — transgress the boundaries of the Establishment Clause. Faith is as deeply important as it is deeply personal, and the government should not appear to suggestthat some faiths have it wrong and others got it right.”

While that decision looked at legislative prayer, it isn’t so far a stretch to see that precedent being applied to government-funded public schools as well. If a school enacts a policy under a student free expression law, and the vast majority of “inspirational messages” are endorsing one single sectarian message, it could be seen a an official endorsement of religion, even if the teachers and administrators never utter a word. That gives adherents to minority faiths some hope, but as challenges work their way through the courts, we still face the very real situation of schools in several states where Christian expressions of faith are going to receive pride of place, marginalizing Pagan students.

The problem with these attempts to codify “religious freedom” into law is that almost always benefits the majority at the expense of the minority. I have seen time and time again, in a number of different circumstances, when laws and policies that are supposed to be viewpoint neutral end up empowering one expression of faith in the public square. That’s bad when it involves adults struggling over the issue, but it becomes pernicious when we use our children as proxies in a fight over the nature of religious freedom and secularism within our country. It shows just how desperate and anxious sections of our  Christian majority have become.

About Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • http://www.facebook.com/EdAHubbard Ed Hubbard

    In the school Prayer fight in the 90′s, we invoked our rights as well. So we must allow ourselves the right of expression when needed, and we are seeing that.  The idea of a Post-Christian America is still mostly a fantasy, and a pluralistic America is still generations away. But it will take us standing up today to even see that.

  • http://twitter.com/whitestagforest Aine Llewellyn

    The legislature in AZ is pushing a bill to allow a class in high schools about the Bible and its influence on Western culture.  They vetoed a bill that would allow the same thing for the Book of Mormon.  :(

    • A.C. Fisher Aldag

      A school prayer bill has also passed the state house in IN.

      • A.C. Fisher Aldag

         And one in TN allowing students to “express religious viewpoints”.

    • Patrick Barry

      Actually a class on the influence of Mormonism in America might make a good read if done right.

    • Mia

      If they’re actually running a school then they should already have that somewhere. It’s called “History class”.

  • Adrian Hawkins

    I’d like to lead you all in an OM and chakra cleaning before the Pep rally

    • Mia

       I think someone should actually do that. A lot of the wording in these articles (nothing against Jason here, I mean in the quotations) and laws seem vague, and only discuss possibilities. I think more instances of action that challenges (or proves a point, like the religious material distribution in school issue that recently occurred) can demonstrate how effective and true the laws are, and whether or not there is as much of a threat as perceived to be.

      I understand that is difficult to do because of the minority status, and therefore the possibility of dangerous backlash, but I hope it can eventually happen. It’s better to confirm or deny than to speculate.

  • RivaWitch

    “Pray in public”? Didn’t Jesus say to pray behind closed doors?!

    • Patrick Barry

      No, you see they meant Prey in Public. Totally different.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=775466869 Katherine Mathiowetz

    YOU ALL NEED TO GET THE HELL OVER IT. AMERICA WAS NOT AND NEVRE WILL BE A CHRISTIAN ONLY NATION. THE PEOPLE CAME OVER HERE FOR FREEDOM TO WORSHIP THEY WAY THEY WANT THEIR IS THE FREEDOM OF RELIGION WE CAN HAVE WHAT EVER RELIGION WE WANT SO GET OVER IT. I DON’T CARE WHO OR WHAT YOU PRAY TO JUST DO NOT THINK YOU WILL EVER MAKE ME DO IT. I PRAY TO WHO I WANT WHERE I WANT AND WHEN I WANT I WILL NOT ASK FOR PREMISSION. I DO IT IN POBLIC AND I DO IT AT HOME. YOU ASK FOR TEH RIGHT TO PRAY WHERE YOU WANT IN PUBLIC AND THAT IS OKAY I AM TOTALLY FINE WITH THAT BUT REMEMBER A LOT OF US DO NOT PRAY TO ONE GOD OR GODDESS OR WHAT EVER. SO IF YOU WANT US TO REPECT YOUR PRAYING YOU HAVE TO RESPECT OURS. IF YOU ARE DINNING OUT AND YOU WANT TO PRAY OVER YOUR FOOD DO IT!!!! NO ONE CAN STOP YOU ( UNLESS YOU ARE STANDING UP SHOUTING LIKE A DUMB ASS THAT CAN GET YOU KICKED OUT…) BUT AS YOU ARE PRAYING DO KNOW THAT I WILL BE PRAYING TOO. AND YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO TELL ME WHO I CAN PRAY TOO. YOU WANT TO PRAY IN SCHOOL BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR….THERE ARE OTHER RELIGIONS OUT THERE AND YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO TELL US WE CAN NOT BELIEVE WHAT WE WANT. THERE HAS NEVER EVER BEN A WAR ON CHRISTIANS… IT IS JUST NOW THE REST OF US ARE TIRE OF YOUR SHIT AND YOUR TELLING US WHAT TO DO. WE ARE STANDING UP FOR OURSELVES. SO DEAL WITH IT. LIKE I SAID PRAY BY ALL MEANS I AM RESPECTFUL AND I LIKE HEARING PRAYERS. PEOPLE NEED TO BELIEVE IN SOMETHING BUT DON’T YOU DARE TELL ME I AM WRONG FOR WHAT I BELIEVE IN …THAT IS WHERE I LOSE MY RESPECT AND TELL YOU TO FUCK OFF. 

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      Why are you typing in all caps?

      • Thelettuceman

         Because caps lock is cruise control to cool.

    • Patrick Barry

      Chill, you’re preaching…ummm yelling to the choir….umm grove/circle here. If you want to yell go do it on Rev Terry’s site.

  • Ravynne

    Jason – the Tennessee bill introduced actually IS protective of *all* faiths….which is what shocked me.  (I went to college in TN in the ’90′s, and I’m just gobsmacked that something like this could get *any* traction there)

    http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/2012/mar/28/bill-would-expand-students-religious-rights/

    • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

      Of course it is. All of these laws are, at least in theory, inclusive. The real test is how it’s enacted in the schools, and what the actual results of this new “freedom” is. 

  • kenneth

    Let them keep drafting their too-clever by half establishment laws. Lawyers gotta eat too! These fools always lose in the end, and they pay the legal bills of the ACLU or whoever takes them on. It’s a moron tax.

  • http://thetinfoilhatsociety.com/ Susan

    *sigh* The reality is that our economy isn’t going to get better.  And regardless of what our govt officials say, our nation *has* to be in eternal conflict with someone, somewhere, to keep the hundreds of thousands of enlisted people out of the home economy, because there are no jobs for them.  And what does this have to do with laws regarding religious freedom?  A lot. 

    People are afraid.  Most people, particularly those who have never been shown how to develop critical thinking, turn to a force that gives them a road map.  That road map doesn’t need to do anything except comfort them that they are right, and everyone else is wrong.  This is fundamentalist *anything*.  If I do A, then B will happen and everyone has to believe this or my own belief is threatened.  Plus, if we only had it like in the “good ole days” my life/job/marriage/kids wouldn’t have turned out like they did.   They’re told this by the controls in the houses of worship, and they believe it because after all, their leaders are living well. 

    Any religion that is strange to the mainstream, that allows for personal freedom, responsibility, and critical thinking, is an enormous threat, even more so than outright atheism or agnosticism.  I do not anticipate Pagans having more freedom, I anticipate Pagans going back underground in the long term out of pure self preservation.  I have already lost a job due in large part to my beliefs, and that was in good economic times.  I imagine things will continue to get worse in this regard.  I think that the world ten years from now will look much more like the 50′s regarding conformity than anything else.  Cynical perhaps.  But also realistic.

  • Anonymous

    From the Times Free Press article linked below:Only students in the highest two grade levels of the school and who also
    are a student council officer, football team captain, top class officer
    or other position of honor established by local schools “based on
    neutral criteria” would be eligible to use the limited public forum.

    Neutral criteria seems to mean “student self-selection” here. And anyone who remembers high school knows how well students with minority views do there. :

  • Kilmrnock

    Aye we are going to have to assert our rights again .This is a thinly veiled attempt to allow school prayer . With the current bullying that goes on in schools today anyone other than Christians will find it difficult to pray publicly there . Last i heard some of these fools were allowing bullying as free speech. Especialy in the south pagans or any other minority faith has the deck stacked against them from the get go . This is the bible belt after all, where the  RR has the most power. Atleast for now i would recommend religiuos minorities to move north . And this is truely a sad state of affairs .As asoutherner i am truely ashamed . i live in the mid atlantic where folks are more tolarant    Kilm

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

    We will have to continue to put up with this crap as long as monotheistic religions dominate the western psyche. Even most professed non-believers, agnostics, and atheists still equate all religiosity with “belief in God”. meh.

    Only once true religious diversity becomes a fact of life in America and other western societies will we see true religious freedom. Hopefully the long slow decline of Christianity in the West will continue apace, which is a precondition for such genuine diversity.

  • Anith

    Uh, since when is the “God of Abraham” named Jesus Christ?  I know, preaching to the choir here.  I had what I consider to be very positive inclusivity messages in my elementary years, as the Jewish kids in my classes were invited to give a talk every holiday season about how they celebrated.  But there was never another test case besides that.