Prayer over a school's public-address system, however, is a different matter. Supreme Court decisions have consistently ruled that such school-sanctioned prayer violates the Establishment Clause, the constitutional prohibition against government establishing religion.
Last week, Calhoun County Schools Superintendent Judy Stiefel properly and firmly put an end to Alexandria High School's practice of allowing students to pray and read the Bible over their school's public-address system.
At this afternoon's board meeting, she will likely take some heat for her decision to tell all district schools to prohibit these types of religious exercises. We expect some will complain that their First Amendment free-speech rights are under assault. Yet the law recognizes an individual's private speech rights are different from speech enabled and amplified by government.
A Supreme Court case — Santa Fe (Texas) Independent School Dist. vs. Doe — last decade found, "The delivery of such a message — over the school's public-address system, by a speaker representing the student body, under the supervision of school faculty, and pursuant to a school policy that explicitly and implicitly encourages public prayer — is not properly characterized as 'private' speech."
If government owns the microphone and allows religious messages to be broadcast over it, then it "sends the ancillary message to members of the audience who are nonadherants 'that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherants that they are insiders, favored members of the political community,'" as the court put it in 2000, even quoting a 1984 decision.
The law is very clear.
So was the intent of our founders. Having escaped European countries that mixed church and state to disastrous results, the founders were informed by the Enlightenment. They created a nation that protected the rights of minorities, those with a faith different from the majority or of no faith at all.
Historical revisionists who say the United States was created as a Christian nation do so while ignoring that the Constitution — our founding document — fails to mention Jesus Christ, Christianity or any specific religious faith. While a debate rages over the depth and quality of founders' faith, it's safe to say few, if any, were openly hostile to religion, particularly Christianity. However, Thomas Jefferson's desire for a "wall of separation" between church and state is clear indication that the founders were wary of government putting its stamp of approval on any particular faith.
(A topic for another day is how Jefferson, the third U.S. president, edited the Bible to delete mentions of Jesus' miracles or claims of divinity.)
The point is the United States is not a theocracy, where the majority religion is forced by government upon citizens. Americans are free to worship how they wish, or to not worship at all. These protections stand out in a world where too many despotic nations don't respect differences.
We have no religious police forces as they do in Saudi Arabia and Iran.
A profession of faith is not required to become a citizen.
Religious instruction is not forced upon children attending public schools.
Along with these guarantees, the First Amendment also protects dissent. Citizens are free to speak up. They can even take issue with the system and its church-state division. They can criticize protections of minority faith groups. They can advocate for something different.
We expect that sort of dissent at today's Calhoun County School Board meeting.
And, while seeing things differently, we celebrate this dissent. For it, too, is a testament to the values of our Constitution.