On the Slow, Steady and Subtle Erosion of Religious Liberty

Some years ago I read a humorous but poignant story about public prayer at a school graduation. It took place during the time when tide had just begun to turn against religious displays etc. in the public square, somewhere in the late 1980s. Up until that time prayer by a local minister, priest or rabbi was part of graduation, almost without exception. We certainly had it at my public high school graduation in 1979.
But by the early 1980s the ACLU and other organizations began to insist that prayer of any sort at a public gathering was wrong and violated the (so-called) “separation of Church and State,” (a phrase that does NOT occur in the US Constitution).  And here is where the story picks up:
The class valedictorian of a local Virginia high school (I forget which) was a committed Christian, and also something of a class clown. He was told that, under no circumstances was he to invite his classmates to pray or to mention God in a prayerful way and that, if he did, the microphone would be turned down. Annoyed but not without plans, he “conspired” with five of his classmates to edge prayer into the talk in a creative way. He went to the podium, looked at the crowd, looked at his notes, and looked up again. The atmosphere was tense for others had heard of the forbidding of prayer, and the community was quite divided. Would he do it?  Suddenly, he sniffed, as if to sneeze. “Ah……Ah…..Ah Chooo!” came the loud and rather staged sneeze. At once, five of his classmates rose to their feet and said loudly together: “God Bless you!” And the valedictorian said, “Amen!” Yes, there was prayer at graduation that year, and most of the crowd rose to their feet in tribute to the brief but powerful prayer that had been forbidden.
Last week the priests of our Archdiocese gathered to study the slow, but steady erosion of religious liberty in our American culture. We were presented with a broad range of incidents, court decisions, and examples from the medical world which painted the picture for us. Cardinal Wuerl well summarized the day in saying, We take for granted our religious freedom, but today it is under substantive while subtle challenge….We are in the midst of a sea change. We are being told that religion has no place in the marketplace, in the public forum.
It is one thing to request that the State, in its official capacity, refrain from sponsoring sectarian prayer. But it is another to tell believers that they are not allowed to make religious expression, refer to God, or pray in any sort of public way. Further, religious exemptions, traditionally granted in matters where moral matters and State policy collide, are gradually being removed, never included, or interpreted so strictly that they can never apply. Catholic institutions are gradually being pressured to provide contraceptives in medical plans, cooperate in adoptions to gay couples, or single parents, provide spousal benefits to gay couples, and indirectly cooperate in providing abortion coverage by not being able to opt out of plans that provide such coverage.
But as the Cardinal points out, much of the erosion of religious liberty is subtle, carried out in incremental ways, hidden in the deep details of legislation, and strict interpretations of various judges. It requires the Church and other religious organizations to fight on multiple fronts in a wearying number of, often arcane but significant, legal minutia. At some level, the erosion of religious liberty is happening simply due to the repeated quality of the multiple legal maneuvers. The Church and other religious entities may win an individual battle in one case, only to have to face multiple appeals and similar battles in other jurisdictions. Keeping the faithful organized and alert, and having the legal resources in place to  meet every challenge is difficult and this is part of the erosive technique.
Consider the following story from the Washington Examiner Op-Ed page reported and commented on by Ken Klukowski:

Like most high schools, Medina Valley Independent School District allows the class valedictorian to deliver a graduation address. This year’s valedictorian, Angela Hildenbrand, is a Bible-believing Christian. Many knew that Angela would give thanks to God for blessing her work as a student, and that she might offer a prayer. Alleging that hearing a prayer would cause serious and irreparable harm, one of Barry Lynn’s lawyers at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) filed suit for the agnostic family. A federal judge….issued an order that no prayers could be offered, and also that Angela could not utter certain words in her speech, including the phrase “bow your heads” or the specific words “prayer” or “amen.”

In other words, suppose Angela said, “As long as students have to take final exams, there will be prayer in schools. Can I hear an ‘amen’?” She would have violated the judge’s order twice, and could be thrown in jail.

The reality is, the judge’s order, not a prayer Angela might offer in her speech, violated the First Amendment. In 1992, the Supreme Court (wrongly) held 5-4 that high school graduation prayers violated the First Amendment Establishment Clause. Even then, though, the court’s holding was merely that a school could not organize the prayer or invite a clergyman to lead the prayer. In that moment, the clergyman is speaking for the government.

In this case, a student is given the stage not specifically to pray, but to speak about her values and priorities and to thank whomever she wishes for helping her succeed in school. Because she’s a private citizen (not a government agent), her speech is protected by the First Amendment Free Speech Clause. For government (including a judge) to censor her private speech is unconstitutional.

On June 4, the Fifth Circuit federal appeals court granted an emergency motion to reverse the district judge. So Angela’s speech proceeded as planned, including the now-controversial word “amen.” But don’t get your hopes up that sanity is making a comeback. [Story from the Washington Examiner]

So here, in the end, religious liberty won the day. So did free speech. But these sorts of suits and legal motions are increasingly widespread and the legal landscape is often shifting. And it is this steady, drip, drip, drip that is helping to erode religious liberty, and free speech related to religion.

The article rightly points out, the public school district is not officially mandating or even arranging for prayer to take place. What  AUSCS argues is that the mere public mention of God by a private citizen of faith should be forbidden, that a religious person, asked to speak to a public gathering, cannot indicate that God was part of her success, or give public thanks and acknowledgment to God. It is indeed sad that any judge would agree with this, but increasingly this is the case. This case was won on appeal, but not every similar case has won or will be won in the future.

It is essential that we remain vigilant in matters such as these. It is the wish of some to exclude Christians, indeed all believers, from the public marketplace of ideas. There are increasing numbers of strident secularists who insist that the only legal place for religious expression, be inside a church building, or on church-owned property. This is not right or Constitutional:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of a religion or the free exercise thereof: or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution).

Christians and other religious individuals have no less a right to free speech, to assemble peaceably, or petition the government than any other group, or individual. Yet it is increasingly argued by many that, simply the fact that a religious perspective is involved, should exclude religious people altogether from having a place in the public setting. And thus we have the strange reality that in public schools, our children can be exposed to almost any philosophy, some of them aberrant and little supported by the general populace. Yet, even to refer to the Bible as an historical factor in this nation’s history is considered forbidden and may trigger a lawsuit. Condoms are freely distributed in most schools but the mere presence of a Bible is often greeted with hostility from school administrators.

There are legitimate debates to be had about the limits of interaction between the religious institutions and the State, about when and how citizens acting in a state sponsored role can speak of, or reference, religious matters. But no private citizen, such as Angela Hildenbrand, reference above should have their right to speech abridged by the government in the manner attempted by the judge. Christians have every right that other citizens do to speak to their values publicly, and seek to influence the public discussion.

We need to be alert in these matters and stay thirsty for justice.


18 Replies to “On the Slow, Steady and Subtle Erosion of Religious Liberty”

  1. Graduations at my public high school back in the early 1980’s included the Lord’s Prayer sung by one of the guidance counselors. Mr Goodloe had a wonderful bass-baritone voice, and was a highlight of the ceremony. The school choir sang “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.”

  2. As I understand it the AUSCS is a Baptist organization. This may surprise some people but if one understands history one understands that one of the outcomes of Luther’s uprising is strong opposition to any public expression of religion. Certainly the Anabaptists (Now Baptists, Pentecostals, Independents, etc.) carried Luther’s ideas further than even he imagined but that is the origin of most opposition to the public expression of religion in the Western world. In any event the good bishop gives us accurate information. What to do about it only God knows.

    1. Luther spoke not against the public expression of religion, but rather the interference of secular authorities in Church matters and vice versa.

      1. Secularism is nothing more or less than agnosticism in practice. It has always been condemned by the Church. See the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia if you don’t believe me. It is both insightful, and as it turns out, prophetic. And, though, of course Luther did not intend it, just as he did not intend that every man become a Pope, nonetheless, the both are only the eventual working out of “private judgment” and the new system he had proposed.

        Only two people can be consistent secularists: Those who believe all religions are false, and those who believe all religions are true. Neither of that describes the Christian.

        “The Church cannot renounce her mission to teach the truths she has received from her Divine Founder. Not only as individuals, but also as citizens, all men have the right to perform the religious duties which their conscience dictates. Hence there is no possible compromise between the Church and Secularism, since Secularism would stifle in man that which, for the Church, constitutes the highest and truest motives of action, and the noblest human aspirations.”

  3. ‘Christians and other religious individuals have no less a right to free speech, to assemble peaceably, or petition the government than any other group, or individual.’

    The muddled mind of many liberals just shout out ‘Church and State separation!’ or ‘No Church interference with the State’ whenever a Bishop, or any Christian even, speaks up in the public sphere. Christian morality must not be ‘imposed’ on non-Christains. Christians are only supposed to express an opinion that is not based on Biblical or Church teachings. Christians must leave their morality at the Church door or the front door. The whole atmosphere of public discourse if often rabidly secularist and militantly anti-Christian.

  4. Best defense is a good offense: Teach the Moral Law and conscience as part of human nature. This will at least show by reason that religion belongs in the public square.

  5. Most likely what will happen is the “good” government officials will come up with a law that defines acceptable religious speech. That will solve all our problems, right? Wrong! The acceptable religious speech will outlaw all other religious speech. Speech that does not make you feel good and assigns you a designation of sinner will not be allowed. Abortion, any marriage variation, any deviant lifestyle or anything that could be described as a sin will not be allowed to be preached against. This is the slow, increasingly faster drip that is happening. Look how the schools have lost any mentioning of the Christian God in order to prevent bullying and to keep students from feeling bad.

    1. Great response
      Sounds like you’re describing the warm and fuzzy aspects in the unitarian religion some are planning to dump on us where we’ll only have to hear what we want to hear instead of what we need to hear. Might be comfortable in the hear and now but, what about the hear after?
      I suspect that, “stop, drop and roll” doesn’t work so good in the lake of fire.

  6. The Southern Baptists I know are appalled by AUSCS’s mission and work. Barry Lynn, the executive director, is an ordained United Church of Christ minister and–no surprise–a lawyer. AUSCS is a left-wing outfit that, among other things, favors easy access to abortion.

  7. In the late 1980s, I was working on Capitol Hill and met with a homosexual couple, constituents from back home. In the course of the conversation, I said something about God-given rights, as the representative I worked for often did. These men were besides themselves, thinking I should be arrested for mentioning God on federal property. I told them to visit the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, and read the inscriptions on the marble walls, that our founding fathers never intended to eliminate God from public life.

    The public schools have ingrained the idea of “separation of church and state” into several generations of Americans, and have eroded the moral fabric of society by insisting on individual rights and rejecting any notion of responsibility or the common good. I recently read my father-in-law’s yearbook from the 1940s; it was clear in those pages that moral character formation was a part of the curriculum for his vocational school.

  8. Gots to love the 9 unelected tyrants in the SCOTUS ruling on us rubes. The founders of this republic had it so that religion was taught in classes. Today you’d get shot if mentioned that. One day (I doubt) the states will learn that “Congress shall not…” means exactly that. But we have fallen for the incorporation doctrines where we have blanket sized rules for all. That is not how it was to be. If one wanted to ban prayer in your little burg of a city then go for it. People can move out of city to one that did allow it. But when you incorporate it all we can’t run. Socialized ‘free’ public schools (they are… its a pillar of communism) needs to go. Privatize the schools & that will end all this rubish of condoms, etc when people can threaten to take their dollars out. But since it is forced plunder the schools do not care nor will they change. Why change when they are guarenteed cash no matter what they do

  9. When do you suppose a Federal Judge will issue an injunction forbidding Muslims from praying in public? IMHO never, and for the record I don’t think it should happen.

  10. You raise valid points, Msgr., but we should not loose sight that the US enjoys some of the greatest religious liberties in the world. I can go to any church or religious service I want – without fear of losing my job, being stoned, or being killed. I can teach my kids my religion. I have a choice of schools and after-school places to do that. I can stand on the street and preach. I can write a letter on any religious topic to the Washington Post or any forum. All in all, we have it pretty good compared to Christians in India or Pakistan.

    My points is that we should recognize the (very positive) bigger picture while dealing with the very valid issues you raise.

    1. Jeff, but for how much longer, I wonder? Which is precisely Monsignor’s point. What happens to those freedoms that you rightly tout as “some of the greatest religious liberties in the world” when the larger consensus is moral relativism– i.e. that there are no eternal truths, and that all views and religions are equally valid? If there are no eternal truths, then why should it matter at all that the U.S. has some of the greatest religious liberties in the world? Why should that mean anything at all? Doesn’t someone saying that there’s no such thing as truth that “what is true for you is not true for me” and thereby classify your freedom to worship as the tyranny of you “imposing your values” on them?

      “I can go to any church or religious service I want – without fear of losing my job, being stoned, or being killed.”

      Unless, of course, you happen to work in a Catholic hospital, and other people complain that your freedom of conscience goes against “abortion rights” and “a woman’s right to choose.”

      “I can teach my kids my religion.”

      So long as you keep it at home and out of the public sphere, according to a good number of people. For people who see religion as merely “irrational,” they then try to argue that it has no place in public discourse. And what if you should oppose gay “marriage” based on natural law (which you wrongly presume that every rational person should understand), whereby you get howled down as a “homophobe”? Also, a related question: do you know the difference between “freedom of worship” and “freedom of practice”? Because there is one, and it’s significant. Is this just about freedom to “go to church” or to “any religious service,” whereby this is just some sort of cultural ritual, or is it also about freedom to live your faith, because it’s not just some “thing” you do, but it’s a world view?

      “All in all, we have it pretty good compared to Christians in India or Pakistan.”

      But that’s not the point. The measuring stick is not whether we have it “pretty good compared to Christians in India or Pakistan,” but whether important Constitutional rights– rights that Christians have as Americans— are being violated in the process. Besides, where does your sliding scale of things being “pretty good compared to whomever” stop?

    2. I was born and reiasd Catholic but I never understand the rituals of Catholicism…I never even found God in that religion. It was like, “Why do this? Why do that? “At the age of 20, I found what it meant to have faith not through religion but faith given by a loving God. No religion can save you. I believe it’s your relationship with God.I don’t know what you believe or what you are trying to say but I believe God knocks on all people’s hearts but He only works on those who believe and whom He called for.”All things work for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.” It takes so much to have faith on an unseen god but that is what is faith for. God is not working on the human realm—because he is God. That is why a lot of people misunderstand this. Putting God on man’s level does not work because human realm is fallible, imperfect, and limited. Of course, you can be what you want to be. People who believe in God does not think they are better than you —nobody is better than anyone. Otherwise, they are not the people God favors.Morals and good deeds do not count as everything in this world —nor even unreliable human instincts.I wish you well….and hope you enjoy a blessed week.

  11. We can not pray at school because we may “damage” children, but we can put pornographic books on required reading lists. We can put anti-catholic books on reading lists, but not pray. Where is the real damage being done? And everyone is asleep. Has anyone looked at the reading lists from their public schools lately? It is stuff straight out of Hustler Magazine. I am not kidding. Do you care what your tax dollars are supporting? We are fair game for attacks, but we are not permitted to defend ourselves. The National Counncil of Teachers of English Teachers have an organization that will fight to keep all pornographic books as part of the high school reading programs. To them their are no bad book unless it talks positively about faith. And the sad thing is that even some of our catholic schools use these same pornographic books. Take a look at “A Prayer for Owen Meany”, “Angela’s Ashes”, or “Beloved”. They contain everything that years ago you could go to jail for.

  12. The simple, uneducated mind thinks freedom of speech and religion means we have the right to express our thoughts and religious views where and how we want. The sophisticated and educated judges and lawyers realize these freedoms mean we can only express government approved ideas in government approved venues. The Constitution has been dead for years, made into a mockery of it’s intended meaning. Land of the free indeed.

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