You knew it was coming. First, they took prayer out of schools and off America’s playing fields, out of high school books and graduations. They took Ronald Reagan’s “moment of silence” from schools. Now, public schools are running scared again – afraid to accommodate faith. They should not be. History and law are with them. Knowing the law is key.
Vocal leftists, animated by resentment, atheism, socialism and undisguised hostility to faith – are on the march. They seek greater control over our lives, and our faith. But these bold assertions are historically and legally misplaced. America is not hostile to faith and should not become so now out of fear.
Our Founders knew America was protected by the Hand of Providence. Odds were too long, miracles too many to ignore. From daring Declaration to Washington’s improbable escape from New York under sudden fog, from Valley Forge to victory at Yorktown, faith grew – and was put in the Bill of Rights.
Later Americans found their bearings by faith – after the Civil War, defending Europe in WWI, laying down their lives for others in WWII at places like Normandy, Anzio, Bastogne, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Midway – later Pork Chop Hill, Inchon, Pusan, then Vietnam, Kuwait, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Do not doubt, Americans rose from faith, defended the right by faith, and returned to give thanks for their faith. It matters.
Nevertheless, last week, the Associated Press reported: “A Pennsylvania elementary school principal will no longer say ‘God Bless America’ following the Pledge of Allegiance, after the district received a legal complaint on behalf of a parent who claimed that doing so broke the law.” The parent threatened a suit, the school cowered. Both were wrong.
The Supreme Court, in Everson v. Board of Education, 330 US 1 (1947), ruled our First Amendment “requires the state to be a neutral in its relations with groups of religious believers and non-believers” but “it does not require the state to be their adversary.” Explicitly, “state power is no more to be used … to handicap religions than it is to favor them.”
A longstanding principle of American constitutional law is “accommodation-ism.” The principle is why we have “In God We Trust” on currency and coins, as well as why presidents, governors and university leaders may conclude speeches with “God bless America.” The doctrine is historically rooted, and well-established in law and practice.
While statutes protect “In God We Trust,” federal courts are clear. These phrases have beneficial consequences for human behavior, fortify moral norms. That is the practical argument, faith notwithstanding. Efforts to ban, bar, chill or take God from the public square – are patently anathema.
In America, profession of faith in God should be accommodated – so long as offering equal treatment and not establishing one religion over another, which neither “In God We Trust” nor “God Bless America” do. As a result, phrases like “God bless America” and “God bless you” in thanks, “mercy be” in wonderment and “Thank God” in relief, “God only knows” in befuddlement to “Godspeed” at a sendoff, should be accommodated. None violate the establishment clause, which prohibits priority of one religion over others. In effect, these phrases show no inter-religion “preferential treatment,” so are within bounds.
Sadly, we are losing our way. Those in government are harassed, condemned, and vilified for following longstanding accommodation. Societally, we are doing what the Supreme Court said we never should. We are allowing “the state” to become religion’s “adversary,” to become a source of hostility to religion. We are “using State power… to handicap religion” – and we are staying silent.
This is where “chilling” starts. Where it ends is society-wide fear, underground churches, and Soviet-style violence against those of faith. Having spent time behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s, this statement is from experience. From small missteps, terrible errors grow. This Pennsylvania school was abiding lawful accommodation, got threatened, scared and caved. They retreated into favoring agnosticism over faith, fear over constitutional principle.
To be clear: Promoting repression of religious faith in American schools – favoring no official references to God over reference to God – is suppression of free exercise, a guarantee in our First Amendment. And while it is hard to step up, it is also necessary – to defend the right.
Facts: We are not a nation of atheists, but of citizens who believe in God. Roughly 83 percent of Americans are Christians, a smaller percentage Jewish, healthy slivers devotees of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, Deism, Baha’i, and Rastafarianism. In short, we are a nation of believers. Just a fact.
Americans believe in God, not supremacy of mankind over God, irrelevance of God, or sanctity in irreverence. We differ on particulars – and that is part of America’s genius, but we are pluralistic, not faithless. Most are aware that our past is exceptional; most believe our future, quoting Ronald Reagan, may be better yet that we have a “rendezvous with destiny.” Faith is central to that rendezvous.
While most never say it, except in families and places of shared prayer, we take comfort in freedom of religion, pride in tolerance for others of faith. What we cannot indulge is this unconstitutional slide into hostility to faith – permissive chilling of our faith – by those who want to kill that freedom. It lives and should in legislatures and landmarks, courthouses and schoolhouses. When Americans cower in the face of those who disparage faith, we fail the past – and the future.
That is why many shudder at news of one parent misguidedly silencing an entire school from saying “God bless America.” Freedom – of speech, religion, press, association, and varying other types – is lost by inches. We stand at an intersection of free past and undefined future. We must define America’s future with conviction and courage. We owe that to countless unborn Americans, and also to those who gave us the right, in our schools and out, to say: “God bless America”. This is the time.