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Ashdown and public prayer

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Kevin Sarton
Theology Columnist

The Freedom From Religion
Group, a nonprofit organization
diligently working
to promote “nontheism” and
to defend the “constitutional
separation between religion
and government,” has been
pretty busy as of late. Some
of their recent heroic efforts aimed at shielding the publicat-
large’s sensitive eyes and minds from the evil idea of the
existence of a divine being have involved threatening both
police departments who have dared to place our national
motto (“In God we Trust”) on the back of department-owned
vehicles and school districts that have done the grievous
harm of allowing student-led prayers to be voiced over the
loudspeakers before football games. It’s the latter situation
that I’m interested in, mostly because that’s the one
that has hit relatively close to us. Our neighbors over to
the south in Ashdown have been the recipients of some of
those threatening communications from the Freedom From
Religion Group regarding their current practice of allowing
public prayer before sporting events, and so the debate has
been reignited. Is student-led prayer before sporting events
involving schools in public school districts illegal? Maybe it is
and maybe it’s not, but there’s no doubt that it shouldn’t be.
The issue of what the United States Constitution allows
or doesn’t allow as it pertains to religion in the public square
is an interesting one, to be sure. The Supreme Court of
the United States has taken the First Amendment to the
Unites States Constitution, an amendment aimed (in part)
at preventing the establishment of a “state” religion by the
government while at the same time protecting citizens’ free
exercise of religion, and turned it into a jack-boot to be used
to stamp out any display of religion perceived to be allowed
or supported by any governmental entity or political subdivision.
The Supreme Court has arrived at this interpretation
of the all-important First Amendment gradually, through
an insistence on interpreting prior interpretations of prior
interpretations of the amendment instead of the amendment
itself. But it was not always so.
Thomas Jefferson has long been the favorite “separation
of church and state” poster-boy, largely because he first
coined the phrase in a letter that he penned to the Danbury
Baptist Association back in 1802 in response to their
letter of complaint to him concerning what they believed
to be infringement upon their religious liberty by the state
legislature of Connecticut. Jefferson’s one quote from that
letter that referenced a “wall of separation between church
and state” was interpreted by Supreme Court Justice Hugo
Black in the 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education as
evidence that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause
applied to the states and that any governmental support
or preference for religion amounted to an unconstitutional
“establishment” of religion. But astute observers of history
will readily recognize that even a cursory reading of some of
Jefferson’s other writings reveals that Jefferson was not opposed
to any display or support of religion by governmental
entities, but rather that he had strong feelings against any
mandates concerning the practice or non-practice of religion
issued by the federal government.
Consider the fact that in 1779, as Governor of the state
of Virginia, Jefferson was comfortable issuing a proclamation
appointing December 9th, 1779, as a day of “public and
solemn thanksgiving to Almighty God for his mercies, and
of prayer for the continuance of his favour and protection
to these United States”
However, in 1808, when he was serving as President,
Jefferson responded to Reverend Samuel Miller’s proposal
that he recommend a national day of prayer and fasting by
declining to do so, stating his conviction that “civil powers
alone have been given to the President of the U.S. and no
authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.”
What was the difference? The level of government
issuing the proclamation, not the proclamation itself. In
that same letter to Reverend Samuel Miller, Jefferson also
made the following statement: “I consider the government
of the U S. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling
with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline,
or exercises. This results not only from the provision that
no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free
exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to
the states the powers not delegated to the U.S. Certainly
no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume
authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the
general government. It must then rest with the states, as far
as it can be in any human authority.”
It must rest with the states! The First Amendment guarantees
that no citizen of Ashdown, Arkansas will be compelled
to either practice or not practice any religion against
their will. That same First Amendment is also supposed to
guarantee that those same citizens of Ashdown, Arkansas
have the freedom to decide what non-compulsory displays
of religion they find acceptable. Surely student-led prayer
before a sporting event, even in a public school district using
a school-owned loudspeaker, would fall into that category.
All intellectually-honest conversations about the true
intention of the First Amendment aside, this is the reality of
the time that we live in – that a group of people based out of
Madison, Wisconsin, some 853 miles away from Ashdown,
Arkansas, by appealing to the Supreme Court’s misinterpretation
of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,
can compel the federal government to do what it was never
supposed to have the power to do in the first place – to
order student-led prayers before sporting events to cease,
on penalty of fines or worse.
The good news, and the reason that I am not frightened,
discouraged, or disheartened is simply this: God’s sovereignty
and His existence are not diminished or threatened
by the actions of men. Remove every mention of God from
the public square. Legislate and threaten and bring lawsuits
and levy fines. Mock and ridicule and slander and hate. Hand
out your “in reason we trust” bumper stickers and erect all of
the “atheists in foxholes” monuments that you want to. None
of this affects God’s sovereignty or His existence in the least.
Soon all of our time on earth will be over. These bodies will
return to dust, and we will finally have our definitive answer
concerning whether or not the God that these students are
calling on pre-game exists or not. All non-theists had better
hope that nothing more than nothingness awaits, for as
Hebrews 10:31 states, surely “it [will be] a terrifying thing
to fall into the hands of the living God.”