Oh, poor little oppressed majority

My 10-year-old sister was over for dinner the other night and we started talking politics. I discovered that she believes in gay rights, the death penalty (if the judge is really, really sure the person is guilty) and prayer in school.
“But,” I had to ask, “what if a kid isn’t the same religion as other students and doesn’t want to hear the prayer?”
“Then they can go out in the hall,” she explained.
“What if they’re too shy to go out in the hall, or what if they’re afraid the other kids will tease them?”
“That’s their problem,” she said with a shrug.
“How would you feel if everyday someone made you listen to a prayer you didn’t like?”
Then she decided there should be different schools for each religion so children could pray freely. (Oh, great — a separate-but-equal proponent in my own family.) I asked how people would decide where each school should be located and how city officials could make sure everyone got the same funding. That was tougher.
“Isn’t it enough,” I proposed, “that kids can pray before school, after school and even at school as long as they’re not bothering anyone?”
That sounded reasonable to her. Now, if a fourth-grader can figure it out, why can’t our public officials?
Two things are now going on in the country that should disturb anyone who believes in a separation of church and state.
The first is a Georgia law that requires all its public schools to begin the day with a moment of silence. A teacher who refused to comply was subsequently fired, and he took the matter to court. Last week, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law. The teacher’s lawyer is planning an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The second attack on the First Amendment (that little thing that says government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) is a move in the U.S. House to add an amendment to the Constitution.
The so-called Religious Freedom Amendment, proposed by Ernest J. Istook, Jr., a Republican (could’ve knocked me over with a feather) from Oklahoma, reads, “To secure the people’s right to acknowledge God: The right to pray or acknowledge religious belief, heritage or tradition on public property, including public schools, shall not be infringed. The government shall not compel joining in prayer, initiate or compose school prayers, discriminate against or deny a benefit on account of religion.”
At first blush, this amendment sounds innocent enough. In fact, it sounds a heck of a lot like the First Amendment. One might think it wouldn’t present any problems and that at most it’s redundant.
But let’s look at who’s pushing for it. The Christian Coalition’s Ralph Reed announced that his group will spend between $1 million and $2 million to support the amendment. “There is no issue, and there will be no legislation that will take a higher priority,” he said. That alone is enough to give us pause.
Second, a closer look at the proposal raises some interesting questions. For example, when Istook appeared on CNN’s “Crossfire” in March, he was asked if the amendment would allow groups like Heaven’s Gate (before the suicide, of course) to come speak to public school kids about their beliefs.
Istook accused the reporter of being obnoxious and said, “You know that’s not the issue whatsoever.”
When pressed further, he said, “We’re talking here, when it relates to schools, what this amendment says is the right to pray. We’re not talking about a group coming in to give their religious doctrine. That is very different. We say it’s one thing to acknowledge religion. It’s another to promote it. We are not talking about promoting it. But we are saying that prayer is an expression. That is not the same as religious indoctrination.”
But look at the wording of his amendment. Whose “right” is to acknowledge religion? Government’s right? Teachers’ right? Students’ right? What would stop a teacher from standing up in front of the class and saying a prayer? Sounds like that would be protected under Istook’s plan. Why couldn’t white supremacist groups, many of which rely on the Bible to buttress their beliefs, come into the schools to share their views?
Istook says he simply wants to allow kids to pray. Well, guess what? They already have that right, as well they should. We must conclude, then, that Istook’s real desire is to have the government promote religion (presumably Christianity) in public schools. If not, why introduce the amendment?
Of course, proponents of “religious freedom” tell all sorts of horror stories about how little kids are punished in public schools for saying prayers and for carrying Bibles. Often times, these are just rumors or misunderstandings. But in the cases that turn out to be true, it is obvious that the kids’ constitutional rights have been trampled. There’s no need for another amendment; we just need to uphold the ones we have.
The “moment of silence” is another issue that at first glance might not seem too intrusive. After all, everyone needs some quiet time once in a while, right?
Well, some Christians in Georgia figured we’d say that. Lawmakers in other states, like Alabama and New Jersey, specifically mentioned prayer in similar statutes, and those laws were struck down. But the Georgia law makes no mention of prayer at all. It’s as if religion isn’t the motivating factor.
That’s why the Appeals Court said it was OK. The judges relied on the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said in order to be acceptable under the First Amendment, a governmental practice must “reflect a clearly secular purpose, have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and avoid excessive government entanglement with religion.”
So it seems lawmakers can pretty much pass whatever religion-based laws they want, as long as they’re crafty enough to cloak them in secular language.
I’d love to see a legislator introduce a law calling for a “moment of stretching” in the public schools. Five times a day, the kids would kneel down facing east (just because east is a nice direction, not because it has anything to do with Mecca). Now, the children wouldn’t have to pray to Allah but they could. Anyone have a problem with that?
Lest we doubt that a moment of silence is a move toward prayer in school, here’s what the Minnesota Family Council’s Darrell McKigney said last year when our state passed a law allowing voluntary moments of silence in the public schools: “It’s a real victory for trying to get to some sort of common sense approach to allowing prayer back in schools and the public square.”
Minnesota’s statute simply states, “A moment of silence may be observed.” Whatever that means. Observed by whom? When? Hello, Minnesota Civil Liberties Union, where are you?
I am so sick of Christian groups whining about how this country is hostile toward their beliefs and how they’re so oppressed. What are they talking about?
What do presidents have their hands on when they’re sworn in to office? The Bible.
When do public schools go on break? At Christmas and Easter.
How does the day begin in Congress? With prayers by the House and Senate chaplains.
What does President Clinton light every year? No, not a joint — the National Christmas Tree.
According to our currency, in whom does America trust? God.
What more do they want? Maybe they should get one of the many members of Congress to introduce an amendment saying this country officially welcomes tyranny by the majority so we can just get it over with.
Kris Henry’s column appears in the Daily every Thursday. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected]
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