First Amendment Follies

The school season is in full swing across the country, and parents are crossing off items on all sorts of checklists: school supplies, clothes, bus schedules, to name but a few. But as Mark Earley discussed last week on “BreakPoint,” there’s another item parents have to contend with: just how far their kids can go in expressing their faith in school. It’s an issue that arises out of a distorted reading of the First Amendment. That’s a lesson that a New Jersey second-grader is learning the hard way. Her school has an annual talent show open to all students. The kids can sing, dance, play an instrument, or even perform a skit. The second-grader chose to sing the song “Awesome God.” And that’s when trouble began. After reading the song’s lyrics, the teacher said that the principal would have to approve the student’s choice, which, predictably, she did not. The principal informed the child’s mother that the song’s “religious content” was “inappropriate.” Why? Because the talent show involved a “captive audience of . . . quite young children.” “Captive audience?” Are we talking about a school or a prisoner-of-war camp? And what exactly does the principal think will happen to those kids if they listen to a 7- or 8-year-old sing about God for two minutes? Remember, these are kids who are exposed to sexually charged and violent mass media on an almost-hourly basis! Not surprisingly, the second-grader’s parents are suing the school district. But what is surprising is that they are being represented by the ACLU. If this proves too disorienting, don’t worry: In Nevada, the ACLU has sided with a school district that cut off a valedictorian’s microphone just in time to spare the exquisitely sensitive from being exposed to perceived obscenities like “God,” “Lord,” and—horror of horrors—“Jesus.” Like their Jersey counterparts, Nevada officials feared that the student’s words would be construed as a governmental sanction of religion, specifically, Christianity. These latest episodes of First Amendment follies led columnist Nat Hentoff to note in USA Today that “educators and, for that matter, some ACLU chapters—don’t have a clear understanding of the First Amendment.” Hentoff provides a much-needed lesson: While the Establishment Clause prohibits government actions that favor one religion, “a student can express his or her personal religious beliefs in an assignment or as a valedictorian.” Now people aren’t stupid; they know these kids are speaking for themselves. But the way we have turned the First Amendment on its head is stupid. The Establishment Clause, which was intended to protect the free exercise of religion by getting government out of the religion business, is being used to repress religious expression. People are being told that religion, unlike sex, is something that must be practiced behind closed doors. Our reply, like the valedictorian’s, must be a polite “no.” Allowing people to express their religious beliefs in public is a hallmark, arguably the most important one, of a free society. And be sure your kids understand this.  
For Further Reading and Information
Apply today for the 2007 Centurions Program and study Biblical worldview for a year with Chuck Colson! Deadline for applications is November 30. Nat Hentoff, “When Schools Silence God Talk,” USA Today, 28 August 2006, 15A. BreakPoint Commentary No. 060905, “Religion in Public Schools: What’s Kosher, and What Isn’t.” See “Free to Speak: The Religious Liberties of Public School Students” (PDF) from Gateways to Better Education. Visit the Christian Educators Association International to learn how to order Teachers & Religion in Public Schools. See the U.S. Department of Education guidelines on religious expression in public schools. Learn more about See You at the Pole, which takes place this year on September 27. Also see these frequently asked questions about See You at the Pole from the Center for Law and Religious Freedom. For college students, see FIRE’s Guide to Religious Liberty on Campus.


Chuck Colson



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