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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Religious Rights

The First Amendment was drafted to protect religious liberties by forbidding government interference in religion. Many modern politicians and judges have used it to forbid public expressions of faith, however. This, warns Stephen Carter, is exactly backwards: “The danger the separation of church and state guards against is not religion,” he says. “It is the state.”

Below are some recent examples of how the state now interferes with American religious practice. Many observers believe cases like these collectively call for strengthened Constitutional protections for religious freedoms.

Guidry v. Broussard (1990) A high school valedictorian planned to devote a portion of her graduation speech to the importance of Jesus Christ in her life. The principal ordered her to remove the offending portion; she refused and was eliminated from the graduation program. The district court and the court of appeals upheld the principal’s action.

Bishop v. Aronov (1991) A tenure-track professor of exercise physiology at the University of Alabama made occasional references in class to his religious beliefs and offered an optional, after-class lecture entitled “Evidences of God in Human Physiology.” The dean ordered him to cease these activities even though professors at the university were guaranteed academic freedom to make personal remarks during class so long as they were not excessive, disruptive, or coercive. The court of appeals affirmed the dean’s order.

Settle v. Dickson County School Board (1995) Students were asked to choose a topic for a research paper that was “interesting, researchable, and decent.” Among the subjects approved were “spiritualism,” “reincarnation,” and “magic throughout history.” One student, who asked to write on “the life of Jesus Christ,” was refused permission, however, and ultimately received a grade of “zero” on the paper. The teacher stated that “the law says we are not to deal with religious issues in the classroom.” The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the grade she awarded to the student.

Lee v. Weisman (1992) The principal of Nathan Bishop Middle School in Providence, Rhode Island, invited Rabbi Leslie Gutterman to deliver non-sectarian prayers at its graduation ceremony. Student Deborah Weisman and her father Daniel filed suit, objecting to being subjected to any prayer as part of the public ceremony, even though Weisman did not have to attend the ceremony to receive her diploma, was not required to stand when the prayer was spoken, and was not even required to maintain respectful silence. The U.S. Supreme Court, in a close decision with numerous separate opinions, held that the Weismans’ constitutional rights under the First Amendment had been violated by the delivery of this prayer and that the school officials should be enjoined from sponsoring a prayer during future graduation ceremonies.

Perumal v. Saddleback Valley School District (1988) Students at a southern California public high school were forbidden to distribute leaflets inviting other students to their Bible study group, despite a California statute specifically permitting students to distribute petitions and other printed materials. The state appellate court upheld the school’s action.

Roberts v. Madigan (1990) A fifth-grade public school teacher was ordered by the assistant principal to remove a Bible from the surface of his desk, to refrain from reading the Bible during the class silent reading period, and to remove two illustrated books of Bible stories from a classroom library of over 350 volumes. The court of appeals upheld the principal’s action, holding that the teacher’s conduct violated the establishment clause.

Kaplan v. City of Birmingham (1989) and Smith v. County of Albemarle (1990) Citizens sought to erect religious symbols on public property where display of nonreligious symbols was permitted, but were refused on the basis of their religious message. In both cases, the courts of appeals in effect agreed that the establishment clause overrides the free speech clause. (Other federal appellate decisions have gone the other way on the same issue. The Supreme Court may resolve the matter this term in Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board v. Pinette.)

Hedges v. Wauconda Community School District (1993) An eighth grader attempted to hand out a religious leaflet to her fellow students before school. The principal retrieved the leaflets and ordered her not to distribute such literature again. The school’s written policy prohibited distribution of material that was obscene, pornographic, pervasively indecent, invasive of the privacy of others, disruptive, or religious. This was struck down by the district court, but the school board later issued a new policy that is equally discriminatory against religious material.

Loehner v. O’Brien (1994) In Florida, a principal confiscated and destroyed invitations distributed by an elementary school student to her friends inviting them to a church-based alternative to a Halloween party. In this case the courts intervened on behalf of the student.

Garnett v. Renton School District (1993) After passage of the Equal Access Act in 1984, high school students in Renton, Washington, who wanted to form a prayer and Bible study club after school asked permission and were denied. The case took nine years and involved three trips to the district court, four trips to the court of appeals, and two trips to the Supreme Court before the students ultimately won vindication of their rights. At the end, the ACLU and the American Jewish Committee made the extraordinary argument that the school district should shut down its entire extracurricular program rather than allow the students to meet.

Fordham University v. Brown (1994) The Department of Commerce rejected the application of the public radio station operated by Fordham University for federal funding for construction of a new radio tower under the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, solely because for the past 47 years the station has broadcast a Catholic mass from the Fordham University chapel for one hour each Sunday morning. The district court upheld the decision.

Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (1995) To provide a public forum for their ideas, a group of Christian students at the University of Virginia founded a publication called Wide Awake. Although they met all eligibility requirements for school funding, they were excluded because their editorial perspective was “religious.” The university funds many publications expressing controversial viewpoints of a secular nature, including gay rights, racist, pro-choice, and Marxist journals, but disallows all publications addressing issues from a religious perspective. In a 5–4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the university’s decision.

Witters v. Department of Services for the Blind (1989) The state of Washington had a voucher program to pay for vocational education of the blind. Larry Witters, an eligible individual, wished to use these benefits to study for a career in the clergy. Because of the religious nature of his proposed field of study, the Washington Supreme Court held that funding would violate the establishment clause. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously rejected that position, holding that state assistance for religious training does not violate the First Amendment so long as the aid is made without sectarian preference.

Beverly Schnell v. Labor and Industry Review Commission (1991) Beverly Schnell placed a classified housing ad for a “Christian handyman.” She wanted a tenant who could help her remodel her home in exchange for low rent. As a Christian, she sought other Christians first, although she stated she would not discriminate against non-Christian applicants. Schnell was penalized $8,000 by a Wisconsin administrative law agency.

Miller v. Benson (1995) A federal district court ruled that the state of Wisconsin may not extend its school choice plan to religious schools. A student qualifying for the program in Milwaukee can attend progressive, Afrocentric, or other schools, but not one where the philosophical orientation is religious.

Daniel Lopez v. Tarrant County Junior College District (1994) Student Daniel Lopez was ordered by administrators of his junior college in Texas to stop distributing pamphlets containing Bible verses. College officials threatened him with disciplinary sanctions if he continued to hand out pamphlets on campus, stating that “the campuses of Tarrant County Junior College are not public fora for purposes of free speech activities.”

Raines v. Cleveland Young (1994) Raymond Raines, an elementary school student in St. Louis, Missouri, was placed in a week-long detention for bowing his head over his lunch. School officials interrupted the fourth grader on at least three separate occasions when he attempted to say a private prayer over his lunch in the Waring School cafeteria. On each occasion, Raines was taken to the principal’s office and told to stop praying over his lunch.

FEMA Disaster Aid (1995) After the Oklahoma City bombing, the Federal Emergency Management Agency refused to provide aid to damaged churches (though they provided much aid during the crisis). Bars, restaurants, bookstores, and other privately owned buildings were eligible for funds, however.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 06/30 at 04:36 PM
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