The zest with which Georgia schools test the church-state divide never fails to stun me.
I wonder if other states grapple with this issue or is this unique to the Bible Belt?
With the threat of litigation, public schools ought to think very carefully about allowing any religious group access to students and the possible charge of proselytizing on school grounds.
Yet, a north Georgia parent sent me a note that Bibles were handed out at her high school last week. She is a Christian and reveres the Bible, but doesn’t think the high school was the right place to hand it out.
Her concern mirrors my own: Our schools are attended by students of all faiths and traditions. All those faiths and belief deserve respect. We risk making many students feel like outsiders when we elevate one religion above all others.
Consider the 1656 warning by devout Baptist Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, on the consequences of mixing religion and government: “God requireth not an uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity, sooner or later, is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.”
More than a century later, Thomas Jefferson allayed the fears of the Baptist Association that the newly birthed United States of America was planning to designate a national religion. Responding to the worried Baptists, Jefferson wrote, “The First Amendment has erected a wall of separation between Church and State.”
Many of you will argue that America was created as a Christian nation. But the 1797 treaty between the United States and Tripoli, written under President George Washington and signed by his successor, John Adams, says that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”
But what about the phrase “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” on our currency? Both grew out of the anti-Communist fervor of the McCarthy era.
In 1954, politicians tacked “under God” onto the pledge; three years later, they engraved “In God We Trust” onto paper money. Concerns were raised even then about blurring the line between church and state, but no lawmakers wanted to risk casting a vote against God.
James Madison believed that the only way to preserve both religion and government is to maintain a safe distance between them. “The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded against by an entire abstinence of the Government from interference in any way whatever, ” wrote Madison, “beyond the necessity of preserving public order, and protecting each sect against the trespasses on its legal rights by others.”
Madison got it right. Too many of our schools are getting it wrong.