School Battle Over Religious Banner Ignites Debate on Religious Freedom

Family Matters on 01.26.12
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When 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist asked her school to remove a banner addressed to "Our Heavenly Father", she probably had no idea of the furore it would cause. Protests, insults and angry school meetings followed, and the conflict soon escalated to the courts. Writing over at the Washington Post, Charles C. Haynes of the Religious Freedom Education Project (yes, he probably has a few biases on this issue), says that the controversy over the religious school sign has become a symbol for a broader discussion over the role of religion in school and government:

On January 11, U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux ruled in Jessica’s favor and ordered the banner removed. It was an easy case. For over 60 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that promotion of religion by public school officials violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

“When focused on the prayer mural,” wrote the judge, “the activities and agenda of the Cranston School Committee became excessively entangled with religion, exposing the committee to a situation where a loud and passionate majority encouraged it to vote to override the constitutional rights of a minority."

Given my own public musings on what an atheist parent should tell their kids about religion, my unwillingness to send my kids to Catholic school, and my excitement about a guide book for secular parenting, it's probably no surprise as to which side of this debate I land on. But I would hope that we don't allow this argument to be distorted into a pro-faith versus anti-faith bun fight, in which case everybody loses.

The issue is not whether or not kids have a right to express their faith (they absolutely do), but rather whether the education system and government has a right to co-opt faith or to promote one religion over another. As an immigrant to this country, and as someone who attended a Church of England school as a kid, I have always loved the idea that religious freedom means keeping a distance between church and state. If my kids choose a religion, I would hope they do so through a sincere belief in the teachings of that faith, not through peer pressure or the influence of the authorities. I believe their god, if she or he exists, would want the same.

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Tags: Education