Religious Liberty (Again)

As required by law (every two years), the president has announced updates to federal guidance on school prayer (which hasn’t been done since 2003). The updated guidance states that school officials “may not lead their classes in prayer, devotional readings from the Bible, or other religious activities, nor may school officials use their authority to attempt to persuade or compel students to participate in prayer or other religious activities.” Not really an update. Solid foundational stuff.

Here’s the update that I would like to see to federal guidance on school prayer: Religious observances cannot be such as to

(a) impede the free movement of students in school and on school grounds. For example, devotional prostrations cannot hinder the ability of students to freely move through spaces normally free to move though. We cannot have people blocking hallways in religious observance. This not only interferes with free movement of persons, but also coerces them into participating in some fashion in religious observances, since they are being compelled to change their action for another person’s perceived obligation and doctrine. It also uses public resources for religious purposes. No student should ever be compelled in any fashion to participate in the religious practices of another person. It’s not just the government should not enable such interference in religious liberty; the government should take affirmative action to prevent such interference. Public resources should not be used for religious purposes.

(b) compromise safety or the learning environment. For example, no ceremonial weapons. If a person is exempted from a ban on religious grounds, then the ban must be lifted for everybody. If hoodies are to be banned because they interfere with learning, then hijabs should be banned. If ceremonial knives or hijabs can be excepted for religious reasons, then this means that reasons given for the bans on weapons and head coverings are arbitrary and invalid. If Sikhs can carry knives at school, then all kids can carry knives at school. If Muslims can wear head coverings at school, then all kids can wear head coverings at school. (See “The Injustices of Public School Dress Codes”; “The Kirpan and the Seax.”)

(c) deny any student the ability to engage in any practice granted to any another student on religious grounds. This is essentially point (b), but I want to generalize it because it is vital to liberty that people grasp this point. If a moment of prayer is allowed for any student, then the same amount of time must be given to all students who wish to observe a moment for any reason. My son is a secular humanist. He would like twenty minutes a day to reflect on his humanism in any manner he wishes. It’s not up to government to police the content of his observances, only the form, time, and place. The fact that he is under no religious obligation for the twenty minutes provided means he is free to do other things while religious people meet their obligations. If he wishes to spend his twenty minutes playing video games or listening to Black Sabbath, then that’s his business. Why should he be denied twenty minutes of his time because some students have been told to lie on the floor in religious devotion or huddle into groups with hands raised to the sky?

The problem with the present popular articulation of religious liberty is that it treats a personal freedom as a group privilege. Instead of making sure that individuals are not forced into the religious observations of other—freedom of religion necessarily means freedom from religion—the understanding many people hold is that holding a religious belief recognized by the government gives one the right to do things that people who do not share those religious views don’t get to do. That’s not liberty. That’s not equality before the law. That privilege.

Religious liberty does not mean a person can do whatever he wants by appealing to religion. Think about the crazy shit religious people do and ask whether anything goes at public school. We cannot have the government violating the principle of equal treatment on ideological grounds or facilitating the intrusion of religious traditions and rituals into student’s time and space at public schools. We cannot have government resources devoted to religious observances or rituals for any reason. We have got to turn this around for freedom’s sake.

This isn’t complicated. Religious liberty means that the government cannot stop individuals from doing anything on religious grounds in their private capacity. You cannot tell a Christian that he cannot pray on his time. It does not mean that religious doctrine or rituals negate government control of behavior. As Thomas Jefferson writes in an October 7, 1801 letter to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptist Church, informing the congregation that the government would not treat any particular sect as special, and clarifying that “the legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions,”“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’”

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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