Freedom Of Religion Must Include Choice


School-sanctioned Assembly Is Not The Place For 'Establishment'

April 19, 1992|By Jeff Griffith

Dear Tara,

Thanks for the letter. Many students either don't careenough or don't pay close enough attention to what's going on aroundthem to have an opinion on something.

I am impressed that you are a responsible citizen. And our nationneeds more of you.

In that context (and with great respect for your point of view), I take issue with some of your statements.

You suggest that Mr. Weaver "had the right to talk about God in our schools, and we (students) had a right to listen."

Of course. But none of you were given the choice to decide for yourselves.

The manner in which Mr. Weaver presented himself misled the school principals about the precise nature of his remarks.

He was warned repeatedly that his message must be neutral. Mr. Weaver's focus was on Jesus, not on God in a broad, nonsectarian sense.

The constitutional mandate is that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion (the 'establishment clause'), or prohibiting the free exercise thereof (the 'free exercise clause').

The Supreme Court hasn't said that no mention of God is allowed in schools. What it has said, however, is that activities that promote specific religions, or religion in general, offend the establishment clause. When these activitiestake place under the auspices of the schools, the activities take onthe color of the authority of the school board, which receives federal money.

Hence, when schools promote specifically religious activities, the schools "establish" religion.

Alternatives exist for individuals who wish to spread the Weaver/Sports World Ministries message.

The assembly could have been held after school. The students who wished to attend would have been free to do so. The sponsors couldhave applied to use any school on the same terms as other community group.

The assembly could have been held on Sunday -- a day when many school buildings are available for church groups.

Obviously, every member of our community who has a legitimate, socially beneficial reason to use a public building should have equal access.

The key here is "equal." Herman Weaver had an advantage. He was sanctioned by the schools and gave his pitch on school time. The rest of us mustwait our turn and use the buildings outside regular school hours.

Free exercise means freedom to practice or not to practice religion.Forced attendance at an assembly raises the issue of whether you andyour classmates were free not to attend.

You raise your right to "peaceful assembly" and freedom of speech. Those sacred rights, unfortunately, do not apply to you while in school with the same force as they do out of school. At a school-sponsored assembly, the Board of Education has the duty to assure that the "speech" comports with its curriculum.

A school is not a public forum in the same sense that astreet corner is. A school belongs to the public but has a dedicateduse.

I congratulate you on the intelligence with which you share your thoughts. Some of the "adults" who wrote made personal attacks on me rather than sticking to the issue. Those who resort to personal attacks often do so in order to squelch discussion.

You are too mature and too respectful of the rights you defend to want to deprive me of mine. Well done.

Respectfully, Jeff

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