This is the first of a five-part series on church and state by Roundup columnist Tom Garrett. The series will appear in the Friday edition of the Roundup through Dec. 16. Comments on the articles received from readers will be directed to Garrett for a response.
Part I: ‘Congress shall make no law'
Where do you think these events might have occurred?
Early one Monday morning, filled with thoughts of a fine Sunday sermon, the principal of a school got on the public address system. After a cheerful welcome back for students and faculty, he read the daily bulletin. Then, with his finger still on the microphone button, he felt a sudden urge come over him. He opened his heart and said a prayer for all present.
By 10 that morning, the principal began getting phone calls from parents who had heard about the prayer from their children. Some complimented him. Others were angry.
Before the day was over, the principal received a more ominous telephone call. The superintendent wished to see him as soon as the school day ended. During the meeting with the superintendent, the principal was told he was suspended, and he was ordered to attend a special meeting of the school board.
The school board meeting was packed. No one was allowed to speak except the board members and the principal, but it was not difficult to sense the emotion among the spectators. The meeting took less than 20 minutes. The principal was fired for violating a written district policy.
So where do you suppose all this happened?
The answer may surprise you. Nowhere! Not in this country, anyway, although similar things have happened, and are happening right now, in other countries. Here's something else which may surprise you: The exact same laws and exact same court decisions that you may think make it possible for such a thing to happen in this country are the ones which make it impossible!
This is the first of several short articles that will shed some light on an important part of our American heritage, a part that all too often is clouded by rumor and misinformation. In these articles, we are going to talk about the relationship between our faith and our government.
Let's begin where any discussion of faith and government should begin in our democracy, by reading the exact words, and the only words, that our forefathers ever wrote into our Constitution about religion -- namely the First Amendment. Here they are:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
The words which interest us at this moment are the ones that say, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. ..."
Sixteen words, just 16 words. That is all that the Constitution of the United States says about religion, but sixteen more important words have never been penned in this country. Those 16 words guarantee us the most precious freedom of all, the freedom to worship as we choose.
The most important of those 16 words, the ones which too many Americans need to understand better, are the first five: "Congress shall make no law...."
What do those five words mean? They mean exactly what they say. No law. None. No law at all pertaining to religion.
Over the course of our history, the question has been asked whether or not the First Amendment applies only to congress or to all parts of our government. The answer, emphatically affirmed many times over, is that it applies to government at all levels.
And that's why the horror story we began with could not have happened in our wonderful country. Neither the federal government, the individual states, our cities or counties, nor any form or type or level of government may pass a law, ordinance, regulation, policy, or anything else which pertains to religion.
In other words, if that principal had said that prayer, he could not possibly have been charged with violating a written policy because no such policy can exist in this great nation. There cannot be a policy prohibiting prayer. There cannot be a written policy. There cannot be a verbal policy. And there cannot be some informal, under-the-table understanding that bans prayer anywhere. Nor can there be a policy that says when or where we have to pray.
No law! None!
We are free to worship as we please.
Isn't that wonderful?