Be illegal for a public school teacher to read to...


November 24, 1994|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

WOULD IT be illegal for a public school teacher to read to her class the "Thanksgiving Day, 1994 Proclamation by the President of the United States of America"?

You betcha! It says, "On Thanksgiving Day we set aside our daily routines to acknowledge the bounty and mercy of Divine Providence." And it says, "Aspiring to lift ourselves closer to God's grace, we remain determined to ease the pain of the many people who know only poverty and despair."

And it is signed, "I have hereunto set my hand this twenty-seventh day of October in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and ninety-four, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and nineteenth."

So it's not only a religious document but also a Christian one.

As an amateur historian, I've always liked that last touch on presidential proclamations. Yoking the birth of the world's most influential religion and the birth of the world's most influential nation is a reminder of just how closely the two were associated in the minds of the creators of this Republic.

They would be astounded to learn that the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights that they wrote in the year of our Lord seventeen hundred and eighty-nine forbids Christian prayers in public schools.

For one thing, everybody here then was a Christian, and there were no public schools.

Okay, before some of you go ballistic, I know, I know. There were a few public schools and a few non-Christians, but you get the point.

Some First Amendment nuts -- excuse me, I mean "absolutists"; it's First Amendment absolutists and Second Amendment nuts -- say the Founding Parents did indeed mean that there not be official, government-sanctioned praying. They cite the fact that President Thomas Jefferson, who created the metaphor of a "wall" between church and state, refused to issue Thanksgiving Day proclamations. When urged to recommend that people pray on Thanksgiving Day, he refused on the grounds that it would lead the public to coerce members of the ACLU to pray against their wishes.

TJ said the right of the religious to worship belonged "in their own hands, where the Constitution has deposited it," by which he meant the gummint should keep its hands off.

But President Jefferson's predecessors, George Washington and John Adams, recommended Thanksgiving Days in proclamations larded with religious flourishes. So did Jefferson's successor, James Madison, and he wrote the first draft of the First Amendment.

Madison didn't really believe in any kind of government religiosity. In his first three years in the White House, he refused to issue Thanksgiving Day proclamations. But during the War of 1812, under pressure from Congress, he rose above principle, and issued four in two years!

And people criticize Bill Clinton for holding a wet finger to the wind on this issue? It's tradition!

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