Who needs public religion?

Ronald P. Bowers

September 22, 1993|By Ronald P. Bowers

THOSE who would return prayer to the public schools see new hope in two recent decisions of the Supreme Court. The first removed restrictions on the use of schools for religious meetings if they are available for public meetings. In the second, the court declined to review an appellate decision which would allow prayer at graduations if voluntarily led by students.

Few ideas are clearer than those of the founders about government ties to religion. President Washington wrote of free diversity of religion as a right, not a toleration. President Jefferson refused to issue proclamations recommending days of fasting and prayer. President Madison was a major author of both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The notion that the Constitution only encompasses rights conferred or constrained by the majority through legislatures contradicts the central concept of the Bill of Rights. Congress added the simple and clear texts of the Ninth and 10th Amendments. These confirm that powers of government are delegated and that unspecified rights are retained by the people, not subject to government approval or dependent on majority largess.

State legislatures adopted the Constitution and Bill of Rights and then often ignored them in their own laws and practices. Even after the Civil War and the passage of the 14th Amendment, nearly a generation passed before the Supreme Court began to apply the entire Constitution to the states. It took another half century to strike states' usurpations of powers on behalf of religion and their abuses of defendants' and minority rights. The struggle for equal protection for every person is far from complete (although President Clinton and his appointment of Ruth Bader Ginsberg ensure advancement rather than regression).

Some argue that long-standing tradition justifies religious observance in government-sponsored gatherings. However, tradition is no justification for allowing pledges, prayer and biblical recitation in public schools, despite the First Amendment.

Otherwise, arbitrary searches by police should be allowed, despite the Fourth Amendment; the "third-degree" method of extorting confessions should return, despite the Fifth Amendment; poor defendants should be denied lawyers, despite the Sixth Amendment; discriminatory laws and practices should continue until the majority decides otherwise, despite the 14th Amendment. Such abuses were also long-standing "traditions."

Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in 1803: "It cannot be presumed that any clause in the Constitution is intended to be without effect: and therefore, . . . a construction is inadmissible unless the words require it." Over time, the courts, strictly reading the texts of the amendments, have generally concluded that, unless there are specific exceptions contained in them, none were intended.

The federal courts are conservative when they strike down actions of government agencies which either foster or impose religious rites, beliefs, or moral dogma upon any citizen. It is equally conservative for courts to restore rights, even if executive or legislative encroachment has longevity. This is not "activism." It is the truest form of conservatism. It tests conformity of laws and practices to the Constitution.

This is the only conclusion reconcilable to the writings and debates of the nation's founders. No true conservative would overturn the principles of limited government and individual nTC freedom, especially freedom from government-sponsored religion.

As Americans, the religion activists are bound by the Constitution. But those who profess Christianity are also bound by the gospel on the point:

[Jesus says], "Be careful not to parade your religion before others; if you do, no reward awaits you with your Father in heaven . . . When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; they love to say their prayers standing up in [places where people gather] for everyone to see them. Truly I tell you, they have their reward already. But when you pray, go into a room by yourself, shut the door and pray to your Father who is secret; and He who sees what is done in secret will reward you. In your prayers, do not go babbling on like [those] who imagine that the more they say, the more likely they are to be heard. Do not imitate them, for your Father knows what your needs are before you ask."

Honestly, aren't the invocations at graduations, meetings, banquets and so on just inflated self-congratulations for being .. part of an elite group? And aren't school prayers just recitations without thought? Do religion and "family values" and quality education really depend on such stuff? If so, religion has become pathetic indeed.

Let the truly religious follow both the Constitution and Jesus on this: Keep it to yourself, thank you.


Ronald P. Bowers writes from Lutherville.

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