Jesus Christ, You Can't Say That in Our School (Unless You're Cursing)

Posted: Aug 31, 2007 12:00 AM

So according to the wisdom of the public education establishment, a high-school valedictorian should lose her diploma for – not cheating, not plagiarism, but 30 seconds of telling her classmates about her faith in Jesus.

The U.S. Constitution compels them, you see. It's clearly there under the Separation Clause that everyone in education knows about. Funny thing about that, though...

But first, here's what happened. There were 15 valedictorians in the graduating class of 2006 at Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument, Colorado, and Erica Corder was one of them. With so many top students and so little time, the school decided to allot them 30 seconds apiece of condensed remarks at the graduation ceremony. When her time came, Corder thanked her teachers, parents, and peers for their support and encouragement, and then she said:

"We are all capable of standing firm and expressing our own beliefs, which is why I need to tell you about someone who loves you more than you could ever imagine. He died for you on a cross over 2,000 years ago, yet was resurrected and is living today in heaven. His name is Jesus Christ. If you don’t already know him personally I encourage you to find out more about the sacrifice he made for you so that you now have the opportunity to live in eternity with him."

Heathen forfend! Corder, showing the lively spark of mind that helped her to achieve so highly in high school, had purposefully neglected to include that portion of her remarks in rehearsals so as not to disobey the inevitable order to shut up.

School officials responded typically, immediately meeting with Corder and demanding she apologize or not receive her diploma. They were most insistent that she include the phrase "I realize that, had I asked ahead of time, I would not have been allowed to say what I did." Corder buckled before the pressure, issued the demanded recantation, and received her diploma. But she was quite upset about this trespass against her First Amendment rights, and she obtained representation by Liberty Council, who wrote on her behalf to Lewis-Palmer High, demanding an apology. This request went unheeded, so Corder brought suit.

School officials insist that their actions were "constitutionally appropriate." Well, they may have been in keeping with the present-day interpretation of the First Amendment, but were they really appropriate?

Here's the test: Follow the coercion. The First Amendment protects individuals' rights of religion, speech, assembly, and petition. Religious freedom is the very first freedom it secures against government interference. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" (sealing citizens against the fear of a State Church), "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

It should not escape anyone's notice that the Free Exercise clause is immediately followed by the prohibition against Congress (and by application, all government) "abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." These all proceed in logical order. A free individual is free to believe, follow, and express his faith, and it follows that he is free to speak and publish as he pleases, meet with whom he pleases, and not be hindered even from airing grievances with the government.

No "Separation Clause" there; that phrase hails from Pres. Thomas Jefferson's January 1, 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. Jefferson used the phrase "a wall of separation between Church & State" to describe what the First Amendment had accomplished, so that the Baptists need not fear state governments' declarations of days of prayer and fasting as abridging their religious rights. The First Amendment protects religious expression even by individuals in government, and even in public halls and government buildings – an idea Pres. Jefferson solidified by concluding his letter with a reference to "the common father and creator of man."

And this is true liberty – allowing all manner of religious expression. It is the cardinal opposite of the current teaching on the First Amendment as it pertains to schools and government; i.e., forbidding all manner of religious expression. That, of course, is tyranny.

Follow the coercion. If a teacher or administrator forces students, regardless of creed, to hew to his religious beliefs, then that would be an unconstitutional abridgment of their religious rights. If a teacher or administrator cited a personal belief in God -- or a personal disbelief in God -- without any response forced upon the students, then no First Amendment rights would have been violated. The former involves coercion, the latter doesn't.

Where was the coercion in Monument? Was it used against the audience hearing a student's declaration of belief in Jesus Christ and encouraging her listeners to join her? Were they prevented from leaving or forced to agree or pledge fealty? Or was it used against the student? Does the First Amendment protect government officials forcing a specific kind of speech – a specifically worded apology – from someone under their power?

Follow the coercion. That's where you can see the tyranny that our Founders sought to protect us against.