Clarity of Thought: Why We Are Free by Will A. Page (November 2000)

Religion does not belong in public schools in the United States. Its inclusion in public life leads to prejudice, divisiveness, muddle-headed thinking, and–ultimately–to loss of freedom. America, settled by those escaping religious and civil persecution, is governed through a secular system, detailed by the founding fathers in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. By keeping religion and government separate, the Constitution attempts to ensure that neither religious persecution nor favoritism occurs in this country, and that citizens are free to pursue their beliefs privately, without infringing on anyone else.

Although the U.S. is a country founded in part by “religious” individuals, including Quakers like William Penn and Catholics like Lord Baltimore, plus Anglicans, Huguenots, and Deists, there is no assumption in the Constitution that all Americans must practice a religion, and it explicitly forbids any religion sanctioned by the state. In fact, the clear-sighted freethinkers and freemasons who were instrumental in articulating the shape of the nation–Jefferson, Madison, Washington and Franklin, for example–agreed that there is simply no place for religion in public schools and other state-sponsored and -regulated areas in a democratic society. Thus, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states “Congress shall make no law regarding an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Consequently, any school that is “public” must remain secular.

Unfortunately, the constitutionally guaranteed right to practice religion–or not–freely as one chooses, has been under attack. Some attacks are subtle, some overt. For example, my grandfather was an Air Force officer who was stationed in Brazil after World War II. My father recalls that when he left the U.S. as a child in 1949, the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag ended with “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” When they returned in 1954, he and his dad were stunned; the pledge had been changed to “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Who would undermine the Constitution? Is this a (horrors!) “communist plot”? Hardly. The insidious Constitutional borers are Americans, often patriotic, who tend to hold Christian religious beliefs and feel that all “right thinkers” should believe and act as they do. Many of them continue to advocate institutionalized prayer and religious activities within the public schools, no matter who is made uncomfortable, ostracized, or singled out.

Two words–“under God”–disenfranchised every agnostic, every atheist, and any Moslem, Buddhist or Hindu who did not subscribe to the idea of a unitary Judeo-Christian deity. The intent of this bit of rhetoric may have been to unify the people after a difficult war, but the effect was to stifle free expression and free thought. Worse, since “flag salute” and “morning prayer” were a daily staple in most U.S. public schools until the landmark Supreme Court decisions in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Schempp v. Abington/ Murray v. Curlett (1963), an entire generation of students grew up believing that public prayer during opening exercises was normative behavior, instead of an insidious assault upon the freedom from religious proscription guaranteed in the First Amendment.

The pressure on public school students to conform to a sanctioned religious practice is growing again. During the past year, in the public school I attended, we had “Prayer Rally at the Flagpole” in front of the school, the Bible Club as a school-approved student activity, and an assembly at which Franklin Graham (Reverend Billy Graham’s son) was the “inspirational” speaker–all on school grounds, the latter two during school time. The principal exhorted the students to attend the flagpole prayer rally for a whole week during morning announcements on the public address system. Students who declined to participate were viewed with suspicion and concern by faculty members and some peers.

According to national news reports, this kind of repressive, polarizing behavior is becoming typical, in spite of the recent Supreme Court ruling rejecting “student-led and student-initiated” public prayers at public school activities, including football games. Justice Stevens, writing the majority opinion, reaffirmed the necessary separation of church and state. How ironic that the same public school whose principal asked me to pray to Jesus at the flagpole and listen to Franklin Graham’s pious spoutings also provides “diversity training” to students and staff, so that they may “learn to respect others’ points of view”!

What is wrong here? Beyond the obvious legal contradiction between the secular basis of American government and religion in public schools, other factors argue against allowing religious practice and proselytizing during school time. Here in Kansas, where evolution has stopped and the State Board of Education is run by monkeys, there is interference with the curriculum because creationists have gained control of the policy board. Additionally, those who seek to place prayer in the school schedule assume that the public, religious exercises will be “quiet and non-disruptive.” It is certainly disruptive to my day to miss calculus to be a “captive audience” for Franklin Graham. And, though private conversations’ content is protected under the free speech portion of the First Amendment, it is disrupting to my flow of thoughts to be proselytized by some sweet Christian girl in the hall or cafeteria or school library.

Any attempt to persuade me that religious proselytizing at school is “all right” because it is the majority practice abridges my personal freedom of thought and action. Besides, it makes me angry and uncomfortable and disagreeable; and my reactions are usually offensive to the pietists. Whether I move away silently, argue vociferously, or simply affirm my right to be left alone, I end up ostracized and draw unwanted attention from staff adults. Though I abhor violence, I can almost understand what triggers tragedies like the high school murders in Littleton, Colorado: a sense of hopeless frustration with regard to social divisions that becomes fury. Pressure to conform to some particular religious norm at school is one of the big divisive forces among teens today.

Most of my classmates do not recognize the term “freethinker.” They equate agnostics with communists and other “undesirable influences.” Their parents look with suspicion upon our local Masonic lodge, adamantly and publicly advertising its support for separation of church and state. Any appreciation of the freedom of diversity raises questions. For example, where does the religious domination of public education leave Native American ceremonies? Who represents the interests of the Wiccans in the overt displays of religion in public schools? The secular humanists? Shintoists? Hindus? Nobody. Yet people with all of these beliefs and more live in my town and attend public schools.

Finally, there is another message in the First Amendment. If freedom of religion is guaranteed, then “freedom from religion” is also a natural expectation. Atheists, agnostics, and others uninterested in formal religion are forced to endure religious timeouts every day. Sometimes they are disguised as a “moment of silent reflection”; sometimes they are more perniciously inescapable. At my graduation ceremony, the principal (in control of the microphone) said “I know there’s been a lot of controversy about prayer in schools, but I feel that there are times when prayer is absolutely acceptable, and this is one of them,” and she offered a lengthy prayer to “our heavenly father,” “in Jesus’ name.”

For the true believers to dictate what is acceptable practice allows far too much religion in school for the freethinkers and doubters of our country. Our forebears would spin in their graves if they were aware of the ever more forceful push to integrate Christian religious displays into the public schools on a daily basis. The founding fathers’ clarity of thought and vision demanded church-state separation, to keep us free. We should be vigilantly guarding that freedom of–and from–religion by barring religion from our public institutions, especially the public schools.

Will Page graduated from Wichita High School East at age 17 and now attends the University of Southern California, to study political science and computer science. Other interests include dancing, films, and maintaining/restoring his ’68 Ford Mustang.

Freedom From Religion Foundation