Courting Secularism

A young revolutionary began to lead the crowd in singing a song banned by the government. Police officers immediately hustled the young man off the stage. But the police action only energized the crowd, who sang the forbidden anthem with gusto. Was this a scene from apartheid-era South Africa or Eastern Europe under communism? No, it took place in Salt Lake City at a high school graduation ceremony. A student named Wil Badger led the West High Class of 1995 in singing a song that had been banned by court order because it contained the word God. It's a chilling example of how the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion has been twisted to mean freedom from religion. How was the Constitution's meaning so distorted? The first turning point came when the First Amendment was applied to the states. The amendment reads that "Congress shall make no law concerning the establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof." And for our nation's first 150 years, every religion-clause case involved a complaint against the federal government. Then in 1940, in Cantwell v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment applied not only to the federal government but also to the states. The Court ruled in favor of Jehovah's Witnesses, who had been convicted for distributing literature on a public street. While the result in Cantwell was commendable, an important threshold had been crossed. State and local institutions such as schools were now subject to judicial scrutiny with regard to religious matters. For example, schools could be sued for allowing students to pray or for posting the Ten Commandments on the wall. Two decades later, the other shoe dropped. In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled in Engel v. Vitale that the state of New York could not start the school day with prayer. And in 1963, in Abington v. Schemp, the Court forbade Bible-reading in public schools. Less than a decade later, the Supreme Court institutionalized secularism outright. In Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Court case overturned laws that provided state aid to religious schools. It created a test out of thin air for evaluating church-state relations. The so-called Lemon Test requires that all laws have a secular purpose. No legislative action may "advance religion"--even incidentally to their main purpose. The police action only energized the crowd. Less than two decades ago, Justice William O. Douglas said the government should encourage religious instruction, arguing that the United States is a nation "whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being." Today these same institutions are required to be religion-free zones. The most recent example was Lee v. Wiseman in 1992. The Supreme Court ruled that to require a junior high school student to sit in respectful silence during a prayer at a graduation ceremony was to trample on her constitutional rights. These cases are evidence that our legal system has abandoned its Christian roots. Today the Court's underlying assumption seems to be that religion is subversive, even dangerous to the emotional and mental well-being of children. The result is a legal climate where Wil Badger of Salt Lake City is treated as a dangerous criminal for singing a traditional school song. A legal climate where saying the word God in public institutions has become illegal.


Chuck Colson



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