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Church-state separation subject of confusion for schools, courts

April 8, 1997

The issue:

Church-state separation

His view:

Confusion exists in


government over church-state separation.

Ryan Riggs

campus columnist

I have a friend in town who is a youth minister, and the other day he came to me a bit distraught.

'What do you know about Church-State law?' he asked.

A bit bewildered, I asked for a little more information, and it turns out that one of his youth was told at school that she could not bring her Bible to school. Evidently, the young lady liked reading her Bible at lunch, liked talking to her friends about Jesus during break times and she was told by her teacher that she could not even bring her Bible to class. Evidently, although she was not using it as a class resource, the very existence of the Good Book in school constituted a Church-State violation, according to the teacher.

The girl approached her youth minister, asking for 'other resources' that would include scripture (i.e. scripture based calendars, day planners, etc.). Seeking a humble opinion, he came to me.

And so I drew upon another local minister for his advice, and it appears that he, too, had to deal with this very problem. The teacher denied his child's right to read the Bible during 'free reading time,' which even the most liberal judicial interpretation would recognize as unconstitutional.

This was resolved essentially with a confrontation at the school, resulting in his kid being allowed to read the Bible, but it seems like the kind of grief that schools shouldn't be putting on families.

With reading scores as low as they are, and TASS scores as low as they are, one would think that these people would be happy with children reading material of some difficulty beyond Where's Waldo.

But then there is that pesky church-state issue. How can anyone justify allowing the reading of religious material, regardless of belief, in a public institution without sanctioning a violation of the first amendment 'wall of separation?'

In Alabama, a judge is currently fighting for the right to keep a copy of the Ten Commandments that adorn his wall the way 'Dogs Playing Poker' might be on another man's wall. It is not posted as an item of worship, but the ACLU took him to court on it during a moment of boredom, and he was ordered to remove it. The issue currently is making its way through the appeals system. The reason this has made press headlines is that the governor of Alabama has publicly stated he will use the National Guard to keep the Ten Commandments on that wall, regardless.

Which is curious, in and of itself, that it has come to this. According to a friend here at Baylor's church-state department, 'the U.S. Supreme Court itself has the symbol of the Ten Commandments engraved behind their benches.' He also cited Virginia v.Rosenberger(1995) where the Court struck down UVA's discriminatory policy against funding a Christian magazine, whereas it had no predisposition against funding both Muslim and Jewish publications; it serves as an example where 'free from religion' tends to mean anything but Christianity. My friend is quick to declare that their 'hypocrisy knows no bounds,' and I find myself in agreement.

How in the world did it get this far? After all, if there truly is not supposed to be any kind of religion in any public institution, why is it that Congress always begins with a prayer? Why does the President take the oath of office with his hand on a Bible? Why is it that our federal notes and coins say 'In God We Trust.'

You church-state institute people could probably answer this better than I, but it is my impression that the First Amendment opposed the 'establishment' of religion as well as the infringement of free practice thereof. Therefore, neither Bill Clinton, Al Gore, nor Mr. Newt, is authorized to announce tomorrow that all Americans are hereby Southern Baptist, though all three of them claim to be. At the same time, the state has no right to deny anyone the free exercise of his religion, provided it does not violate law(i.e. no sacrificing puppy dogs).

The Alabama judge is not proselytizing from the bench, he just wants the wall behind him to be garnished with what he considers to be the foundation for all Western law.

As for the school in question, the school is not involved proselytizing civil religion. It is denying one of its students the right to read her own Bible during her lunchtime. Who is the one guilty of violation here?

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