It's not freedom from religion

Rebecca Hagelin
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Posted: Apr 14, 2003 12:00 AM

Just as America's troops are giving their lives in Iraq to protect such basic human rights as the freedom of religion and free speech, the Maryland Senate made the most un-American move it has made in recent history. Maryland government officials attempted to censor the prayer of Rev. David Hughes because he wanted to end the prayer, "In Jesus' name ... Amen."

When the good pastor refused to delete what is an essential element of a Christian prayer, he was banned from praying at all. In other words, only those prayers receiving government sanction are permitted to be uttered in the Maryland Senate.

How can it be that there are still American government officials who don't understand the First Amendment? Thank the Good Lord there are protectors of the First Amendment who work everyday to preserve this most basic of American, and human rights. Among them are the American Center for Law and Justice, the Pacific Justice Institute and the Rutherford Institute. A quick visit to the websites of these fine organizations reveals so many violations of First Amendment rights it will make your head swim. Particularly disturbing are the many attempts by public-school officials around the country to silence religious expression by students.

Take, for instance, the story from just this December involving students of Westfield High School outside of Springfield, Mass., recently brought to court by the Liberty Council in Orlando, Fla. A few kids asked their principal if they could distribute candy canes that had a Christian message attached. The principal refused. The school superintendent was also approached and the same "no" was given.

These government workers refused to let the students distribute the candy canes because the message on the folded cards that came with the candy canes "might offend" other students. The simple words of "Merry Christmas" were deemed too religious.

The kids, taking their orders from a little higher up, disobeyed the principal and handed out 450 candy canes the day before Christmas break. The principal ordered in-school suspensions for ignoring his orders. Six of the seven refused to accept the punishment and took him to court. Thankfully, a few weeks ago a federal judge ruled in their favor.

Because the candy canes "might offend" students? In this case, the principal and superintendent were acting as agents of the state. If it's going to be the position of the state of Massachusetts – or any other state – that anything that "might offend" someone will be forbidden from the public square, then here are a few items reasonable people could suggest banning:

  • Triple-x movie theaters? See ya!

  • "P--- Christ" and any number of its cousins in the thoroughly unoriginal, incredibly irreligious shock-schlock genre of modern art? Bon voyage!

  • Movies starring Hanoi Jane Fonda? I thought this day would never come.

  • Howard Stern and other shock jocks? Pull the plug!

The truth is, our culture is chock-full of images today that offend large swaths of the population. In some cases, such as the aforementioned modern art, those large swaths are even asked to pay for the offensive material.

But is it right to ask the government to ban such images and items that even most Americans find offensive? Usually not. The best we can do as parents is to teach our children right from wrong and trust that they, too, know to turn away when they see so much of what our "culture" has to offer.

But let a kid put down his violent video games and his bong and his F-word-loaded rap music and take up the cause of spreading the word of Christ, and suddenly school officials everywhere are worried whether their conduct "might offend" people. Ah, you say, but those movies and commercials and reality shows and rappers are protected by the First Amendment.

Guess what. So are the candy-cane kids and the pastor in Maryland. As our brave soldiers battle overseas for the rights of the oppressed, we must remember that free speech and the freedom of religion are bedrock principles that are worth fighting for through the courts here at home.

As Thomas Jefferson said in 1798: "One of the amendments to the Constitution ... expressly declares that 'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,' thereby guarding in the same sentence and under the same words, the freedom of religion, of speech, and of the press; insomuch that whatever violates either throws down the sanctuary which covers the others."