ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP) -- Those hostile to the Christian faith in the United States seem to have a reading comprehension problem with respect to the First Amendment of the Constitution. Either that or they are deliberately twisting it in order to mute the influence of Christian thought in the public square.

The First Amendment reads: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech...."

It really does not take a constitutional scholar to understand the simple, straightforward wording established by our nation's founders.

First, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...." Put simply, the phrase makes it clear that the government must not pass legislation forcing a person to practice or pay homage to a particular religion. In other words, the state will not establish an official religion or church.

Second, "Congress shall make no law ... prohibiting the free exercise thereof." In the simplest of terms this statement makes it clear that the government will not seek to restrict an individual's practice of his or her faith. A person is free to believe, or not to believe as the case may be, as he or she desires.

To sum up the two parts of the opening portion of the First Amendment, when it comes to the practice of religion in America, the government will not tell citizens that they "must" or that they "can't."

Earlier this fall, four middle school football coaches in Tennessee were reprimanded for daring to bow their heads during a student-initiated, student-led prayer following a football game.

The coaches did not participate with the students. Reports indicate that the four stood off to the side while the players huddled to pray. The coaches' transgression, according to the school, is that they bowed their heads.

Some schools around the nation directed teachers to stay away from the annual "See You At The Pole" rallies in which students gather before school to pray.

One school's guidelines stated, "When a teacher or administrator participates in events such as 'See You At The Pole,' it is possible for a student to confuse a teacher or administrator's personal speech with their official speech."

Please tell me how a teacher bowing his or her head constitutes a law that says you "must" follow this religious practice? How does a teacher showing up for student-led prayer rally constitute a statute establishing a particular religion?

A New Jersey teacher has come under fire because, on her personal Facebook page, she expressed she believes homosexuality is a sin.

Viki Knox originally posted a photo of a bulletin board in her public high school celebrating "Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Transgender history month" on her Facebook page. The posting and subsequent discussion about the photo all occurred away from school on Knox's own time.

During the conversational thread that ensued in the comments section of her page, Knox made it clear that she believed that the Bible teaches homosexuality is a sin. As a result, many people weighed in -- people that Knox did not even know -- castigating the teacher for daring to express her beliefs.

All indications are that Knox is a caring teacher that treats all her students and co-workers with respect. The school was apprised of Knox statements and is now investigating the situation. Some who commented on Facebook want her fired.

Considering the context of the First Amendment, it is easy to see that the founders linked speech with religious expression. One of the primary ways a person conveys his or her religion is by communicating through various means. Hence, the Bill of Rights forbids the "abridging of the freedom of speech."

It seems clear the First Amendment not only prohibits the government from telling a citizen he or she "can't" believe a certain way, but it also restricts the government from interfering with a person's ability to communicate his or her faith or beliefs.

It would seem that when a public school seeks to keep students or teachers from respectfully expressing religious beliefs that the government is telling them they "can't" exercise their religion or the freedom to express their beliefs.

It does not require a juris doctor degree to understand the plain language of the First Amendment.

Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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