Religious Freedom Comes to Missouri Schools

Today something interesting happened.  Missouri's Democratic Governor, Jay Nixon, signed into law legislation that guarantees non-discrimination for any public school student over religious practise, beliefs and opinions.  What this means is that students can wear religious items to school without harassment by school officials. They can organise prayer meetings and scripture study during non-class time.  They can pray during non-class time openly and without harassment by school officials. They can even express their religious views in class assignments, and those assignments must be graded by standardised academic criteria, not their religious opinions or political correctness.

So for example; a student could turn in a science assignment demonstrating the student's knowledge of evolutionary theory, but could write at the bottom of the page that he doesn't believe any of it. This would not effect his grade, and he would be graded solely on how well he understood the theory, not if he believes in it.  Likewise, a student could turn in an English composition paper on the a religious subject, or a moral belief, and the paper would have to be graded solely on composition, not the subject matter.  In short, the new Missouri law gives complete religious autonomy to students and students alone.  It does not give teachers permission to teach religion, nor do Missouri's public schools endorse one religion over another.

The signing of this bill comes as somewhat of a surprise to many Missourians, especially those here in the Ozarks, who assumed the governor would veto the bill based on his long standing reputation of siding with the abortion lobby as well as many other Left-wing agendas.  However, it would seem in this particular case, Governor Nixon believes that freedom is the best solution to religion in schools.

Reaction to the law is mixed.  Most Missourians, especially those in the Ozarks, applaud the governor's decision.  Some however oppose it, particularly a minority who believe that public schools should be a "religion fee zone."  A smaller minority of Christian fundamentalists oppose it as well due to fears that their children might be exposed to Catholic, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim or Wiccan practises at school.  A tiny minority of people have just gone hysterical and are claiming the governor has violated the U.S. Constitution and should be recalled.

Before I get into my personal take on this matter, Let's examine the Constitutional question.  The 1st Amendment to the Bill of Rights reads as follows...
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof....
Okay, let's examine this carefully. The U.S. Supreme Court has (rightly or wrongly) interpreted this to mean there is a "wall of separation" between religion and government.  There are two clauses in this article that define what this "wall of separation" means -- (1) the establishment clause, and (2) the free exercise clause. The establishment clause simply says that we cannot have a state-sanctioned or a state-funded religion. "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion." This means you can't have a state church.  It means the state cannot sponsor a church, or give money for the promotion of a religion. There is nothing in this new Missouri law, that Governor Nixon signed, that respects the establishment of a religion. The law does not declare a state religion.  Nor does the law give money to a religion.  Nor does it favour one religion over another. So right from the start, the new Missouri law is clearly within the confines of the establishment clause.  Now we move on to the "free exercise" clause, which means that the government can in no way prohibit the free exercise of religion.  What does this mean?  It means that government cannot make laws that hinder a person's ability to practise his or her religion.  For example, I like to wear a religious medal at all times, including when I'm at work.  The state cannot make any law prohibiting me from doing that.  If it does, that's a violation of the "free exercise" clause and is clearly an infringement upon my constitutional rights. In the case of the new Missouri law, that Governor Nixon just signed, what we have is a law that actually corrects a gross violation of constitutional rights.  Previously, under Missouri law, teachers and school administrators could punish a student for wearing a religious article to school, bringing a religious book to school, organising a prayer group of some kind, or expressing religious views on class assignments. Evangelical Christian students constantly complained of teachers who would ridicule them in class due to their religious beliefs. This new law will clearly benefit them, but it will also benefit Jews, Muslims and other students who feel inhibited to express themselves religiously. The previous legal state of religion in schools was in question prior to the signing of this bill into law, and it left the door wide open for constitutional violations of student rights. This new law closes that door and leaves no ambiguity.  Religious students are to be left alone by teachers and school officials.

Let me tell you a story of my own personal experience over 20 years ago in California's public schools. This was back in the late 1980s. I remember when schools had a zero-tolerance policy toward religion. I remember students being harassed by their teachers for daring to express a religious view.  I remember the random locker searches for illegal drugs, wherein Bibles, crosses and rosaries were also seized as "religious paraphernalia."  I remember students being sent home for wearing Christian t-shirts. I remember police showing up to a "see you at the poll" prayer meeting, and hauling kids off to the police station, where their parents were called to pick them up. Most of all, I remember a young Evangelical Christian girl who dared to organise an after-school Christian club. She was told she could not do so, and when she had the audacity to seek legal council, the school district threatened to ban all clubs on all campuses, including sports booster clubs!  Once that happened, this poor girl was harassed by the high school football team, and all the school jocks. She came to me in tears, nearly hysterical, as she told me she was giving up her case because everybody hates her now, and she was in fear for her safety. That school district sure taught her a lesson! Yes, I've seen how bad it can get, so I know (first hand) where zero-tolerance of religion can lead. The only religion that was tolerated on my high school campus back then was "no religion."  It was a little communist state -- literally -- and I'll never forget it.  I sincerely hope things have changed since then.

The new Missouri law protects students from things like this ever happening to them, regardless of their religious beliefs, and makes public schools what they really should be -- PUBLIC.  You see there are many religions in the public. One can stroll down any city street and see a number of different Christian denominations.  One might even stumble across a Jewish synagogue or a Muslim mosque here and there. You can go into any public workplace and see people from all sorts of religions, each with their own unique prayers and practises. We don't ban religion in public. So why should we ban religion in public schools? Aren't public schools supposed to be "public"?  I mean aren't they supposed to be a reflection of the public community? What about public parks? Do we ban people from praying in public parks? How about public libraries? Do we ban people from using private rooms in a library for religious reasons? What about public buildings or public money? Does the phrase "In God We Trust" ring a bell? Public means public, and in the public there are people of many religions, who express these in many different ways. We don't ban that in the public, nor do we ban it in any other public institution, so why do we ban it in public schools?

It seems to me that some people acquired some really funny ideas when the U.S. Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools back in the 1960s.  Many people took it to mean a communist (anti-religion) approach to public education. Indeed, a good number of teachers and school administrators took it as just that, and they enforced it as just that. That is not what the Supreme Court decided at all. You see prior to those decisions, it was the practise in many public schools for teachers to lead their students in Protestant Christian prayer before each class. It was also common for many public schools to teach the Protestant Bible as literature and sociology. What the Supreme Court decided was this. Public school students are captive audiences. They cannot get up and leave class when a public school teacher begins imposing a school sanctioned religious prayer or lesson. So therefore the imposition of a teacher-led prayer or religious lesson is a violation of the student's 1st amendment rights, in that the state (a state-funded public school) is imposing a particular religion on the student and thereby violating the establishment clause.  That's it.  That's all there was to it.  The Supreme Court never said students couldn't pray in school on their own.  It never said schools could enforce a strict "no religion" policy on the student body.  It never even said that students couldn't include their religious beliefs in class assignments.  It only said that TEACHERS could not IMPOSE a PARTICULAR religion on the students -- period -- nothing more and nothing less.  So what does that mean?  It means the restriction is upon public school teachers not students.  That's not to say that teachers can't be religious, they most certainly can be, they just can't impose any religion on the class.  This is because so long as that teacher is teaching at a public school, the said teacher is acting as an agent of the state or a state official. The teacher can no more impose religion on the public school classroom than a state driving instructor can impose religion on student drivers. Students however, are free to do whatever they want.  The Missouri law not only upholds the 1st Amendment, but it also upholds the U.S. Supreme Court decisions regarding prayer and religion in public schools.

Now here are my closing thoughts on the matter. For those people who protest this new law, I say "get a life!"  Not only do you not know what you're talking about, but if you can't handle somebody else's kids practising their religion in school, then you shouldn't be sending your own kids there in the first place. It seems to me that some people (some Christians even) got very comfortable with the communist (anti-religion) approach to public education, They started to think that even though their own children couldn't act out their religion there, at least others couldn't either, and that somehow "protected" their children from having to deal with any unwelcome religious practises. Since this bill became law, I have heard a few Protestants complain that they fear their children might be exposed to Islam or Wicca now, and they fear what the chant of those prayers might do to their children.  This is what I have to say to that.  If you think that hearing Islamic or Wiccan prayers is going to harm your child, then either you obviously haven't trained them well enough in your own religious faith, or else you have a fundamentally different approach to education and you shouldn't be sending your children to public school in the first place. You should consider homeschool or a religious school. Public school is PUBLIC, it's a reflection of the public at large, which means students will be exposed to everything there as you would be exposed to in the general public.  Is there a mosque somewhere in town? If there is, then guess what? There is a good chance your kids are going to school with some Muslims already. Well now they get to hear their prayers, and if your kids don't like it, they can say their own prayers. This is training them how to be mature and tolerant adults. On a personal level, I have no problem with other people's religious practises.  I don't agree with them, but it doesn't bother me. Jews and Muslims can chant their prayers, and I'll chant the Catholic Divine Office. It makes no difference to me. If I ever send my children to a public school, I will do so with the understanding that people of other religions go there too, and my kids are secure enough in their religious beliefs to not feel threatened by that. For now I homeschool, but not because I have a problem with other people's religions. I don't. Rather, I homeschool because I want to control the curriculum and because I have a fundamentally different approach to education than what is seen in the public schools. If however, I ever decide to sent my children to public school, then I welcome this new law, along with all of the religious diversity that comes with it. It's nice to know Missouri is leading the way in religious freedom for America.



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