By Andrew L. Seidel
Director of Strategic Response
Freedom From Religion Foundation
A person who wishes to be the attorney general of his or her state should understand the law — especially its most basic points, such as freedom of religion and separation between state and church. The individual should also respect the law. After all, she or he is looking to be the state’s chief law enforcement officer.
What the person should not do is argue for schools to break the law and violate the rights of students. But that’s what Sam McLure, who wants to be Alabama’s attorney general, has just done. He has gone after the Freedom From Religion Foundation, for upholding the First Amendment and ensuring that the rights of all students in Lee County, Alabama are protected.
In a recent press release — “McLure Stands Against the Freedom From Religion Foundation” — that seems a tad desperate, McLure attacks my organization as a bunch of “radical activist atheists” that “bullied” a school into “banning student-led prayer.” He goes on at length:
“For decades, radical activist atheists have been running-a-muck … bringing destruction on the very foundations of our liberty. First, they took prayer out of the school day, then they advocated for the right to kill the unborn. Now, the lines are being drawn again in Lee County. They are coming after our youth once again by telling them they are no longer allowed to engage in student-led prayer before a football game.”
This is breathtakingly wrong on quite a bit of things, but especially on the law. The Supreme Court itself explained struck down prayers identical to those in Lee County.
Maybe McLure missed the day they taught constitutional law in law school (an unfortunate deficiency that seems to infect state AG circles these days). If so, we’d like to remind him that the U.S. Supreme Court has continually struck down school-organized prayer in public schools. He might wish to read Engel v. Vitale (1962), or Abington Twp. v. Schempp (1963) or even Wallace v. Jaffree (1985). The Supreme Court has also specifically explained that broadcasting pre-game prayers over school loudspeakers at school football games are school-organized prayers and therefore unconstitutional, no matter who actually says the prayer.
The ban on state-organized prayer actually promotes religious freedom.
The constitutional obligation public schools have to be neutral on matters of religion is critical to ensuring their success, and for guaranteeing that the state does not trespass on the religious freedom rights of students and families. In his statement, McLure professes that this is his goal, but his benighted view of religious liberty is so faulty that it borders on satire: “I’m free to practice my religion, and you’re free to practice mine,” as Roy Zimmerman jokingly sings.
Religious liberty is one of America’s greatest achievements. But that liberty is guaranteed by our secular government. There is no such thing as freedom of religion unless our government is free from religion. In short, a secular government — and that includes a secular public school system — is a prerequisite for religious freedom.
Of course, the law also means that children are allowed to pray on their own time in their own way. Prayer was never taken out of the school day — school-organized, school-enforced prayer was. Any student is perfectly free to bow her head and say a prayer before lunch, or at any other time and in any manner that it is not disruptive to others. That has always been the case, no court has decided otherwise, and no one — certainly not the Freedom From Religion Foundation — is advocating to take away the individual religious liberties of students. The rule is in place to protect religious liberty.
In its 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard decision, the Supreme Court has stated it most eloquently: “Families entrust public schools with the education of their children, but condition their trust on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family.”
McLure, in arguing that school staff can impose prayer and Christianity on other people’s children, is arguing against religious freedom and for religious privilege.
McLure admits that he will abuse his public office to promote his personal religion.
In closing his misguided press release, McLure paints himself as a Christian crusader willing to abuse a public office for the benefit of his personal religion:
“The people of Alabama need to know they have an attorney general who will stand with them in opposition to overwhelming tyranny which seeks to snuff out the light of Christianity everywhere it shines. These school officials, the good people of Alabama, need to be encouraged by the support of the attorney general. If the people of Alabama will hire me for this job, Lord willing, I will do everything in my power to protect the rights of the people of Alabama to boldly shine the light of Christ into the darkness.”
To any reasonable individual, this language is scary. If you happen to be Christian and agree with McLure’s statements, imagine for a moment an attorney general who opposed a group that upholds the First Amendment because they are “bullies” who “seek to snuff out the light of Islam.” Or that if elected, “Allah willing,” the candidate will allow citizens to use public schools and the machinery of the state to “boldly shine the light of Muhammad and Allah into the darkness.” This is the kind of language one expects to hear in a theocracy such as Saudi Arabia, not Alabama.
If McLure wants to be an attorney general, he needs to spend more time studying the Constitution and a lot less time with his bible. When he takes his oath, he may put his hand on the latter, but he’ll be swearing to uphold the former.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping state and church separate and educating about nontheism. We depend on member support, please join today.