Religion 101

In a previous blog entry, I commented upon a recent news story involving the cancellation of an Arkansas school district’s elementary school graduation ceremonies in the wake of a local controversy over prayer, which the district had intended to incorporate as part of the official proceedings.

Rather than simply nix the planned prayers, the district instead cancelled the ceremonies altogether. Subsequently, many parents and other local citizens (most of whom were Christian) complained that one person’s objection to the inclusion of a Christian prayer in a public school graduation ceremony had somehow violated their rights en masse.

However, this was not a matter of a minority unfairly overruling a majority (much less of “political correctness” gone overboard), but a simple and straightforward matter of constitutional legality.

Even if an overwhelming majority of the community was in favor of the school district conducting prayers as part of its graduation ceremonies, the wishes of the majority were not even a factor in this case. Public schools are part of the state, and as such must remain religiously neutral themselves. The principle of “separation of church and state” means that state-run public schools may not conduct prayers, or otherwise favor, support, endorse, or advocate for religion.

This sort of squabble is by no means an isolated instance. Unfortunately, public schools — which, by their very nature, must be secular rather than religious institutions — are all too often the locus of similar violations of church/state separation.

Next case in point: just a few days ago, an Oklahoma high school removed from its classroom walls approximately 100 plaques bearing the Ten Commandments. Those plaques had long adorned the walls of most of the classrooms within the state-run public school, in effect expressing a clearly unconstitutional endorsement or advancement of religion (insofar as the Ten Commandments are clearly religious in nature), until a student at this high school recently objected to their presence.

Rather than risk a lawsuit, the school administration removed the plaques. Of course, while this may have avoided costly legal proceedings, it could not avoid raising the ire of many in the community, who took this entire episode as just another outrageous anti-Christian swipe, rather than what it was: an upholding of constitutional law, and the preservation of the secular nature of state-run public schools.

The fact that two high-profile news stories revolving around such violations of church/state separation in our public schools recently appeared within days of each other merely serves to underscore the fact that these sorts of misunderstandings and skirmishes are still anything but rare.