Our nation is not about defacing churches, defaming faith, closing services, antisemitism, or soft-walking Merry Christmas.
A new case, testing the First Amendment and free exercise of religion in public schools – is making news. On one hand, it should not be news. On the other, given recent attacks on religion, antisemitism, closing services, banning creches, defacing churches, it deserves notice.
Facts: Roughly a year ago, an assistant football coach at a public university returned from leave “following … death of his wife” to find a “Black Lives Matter” poster on his door.
Not in sympathy, he removed it. Notably, polls show only 44 percent of Americans support the group. See, e.g., Support for Black Lives Matter movement is declining, according to new poll. But that was not his offense.
The coach replaced that poster, having just buried his wife, with a poster with religious content. It read: “All lives matter to Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” According to public reports, he was allegedly asked to remove it, did not, got “forced to issue an apology,” was terminated. See Former football coach fired for removing Black Lives Matter poster alleges First Amendment rights violated.
The legal question, if not be obvious, is whether a public-school official can exercise First Amendment rights under these circumstances, whether he faced “viewpoint discrimination.”
The case offers a chance to review Supreme Court rulings as parents and teachers confront increasing “push back” from left-leaning school boards, administrators, and politicians.
Here is the hard-and-fast law, so no question lingers on what rights exist – in public schools.
First, the Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees religious freedom. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, no “state religion,” but you may believe anything you wish.
Notably, these are the first words of the first amendment of the first document to define our Nation, assuring preservation of individual rights for consent to be governed. Important? Yes.
Second, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held religious speech cannot be treated differently from non-religious in schools. Students may pray, speak, persuade, share religious views.
Third, while teachers may not “lead their classes in prayer” or “devotional readings from the Bible,” they retain their First Amendments – including religious expression – in school.
The Supreme Court has ruled: Teachers and students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” and “private religious speech, far from being a First Amendment orphan, is as fully protected under the Free Speech Clause as secular expression.” If leading a prayer group in the school is foreclosed, expressing belief is not.
Nor are these decisions new. They are foundational, longstanding, some more than 50 years old. For reference, see Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Cmty. Sch. Dist. (1969), Heffron v. Int’l Soc. for Krishna Consciousness (1981), Widmar v. Vincent (1981), Lamb’s Chapel v. Ctr. Moriches Union Free Sch. Dist. (1993), and Capitol Square Review & Advisory Bd. v. Pinette (1995).
Rather than being silenced, cowed, intimidated, or coerced into not expressing religious convictions, students and teachers have the right to viewpoint expression, including about their religious beliefs, subject to narrowly tailored prohibitions on specific instruction.
Fourth, a distinction exists between officially “sponsored” prayer and privately expressed views, even in a schoolhouse. In a case called Santa Fe Indep. Sch. Dist. v. Doe (2000), the Court explained “not every message … on government property” or “at government-sponsored school-related events” is “the government’s own.” It may be a personal or private expression of faith.
That would certainly seem to fit the notion of a private poster on a personal office door, perhaps like any other religious symbol, picture, inspirational quote, or religious affirmation on a desk, shirt, handbag, briefcase, bumper sticker, license plate, or on a necklace.
Fifth, laziness in distinguishing between private and government speech is not permitted. The default to anti-religious policies, or even subtle hostility to those of faith, is not allowed. The Supreme Court is clear, saying those of faith will not be discriminated against. Thus, a student speaking at a ceremony about faith is not “attributable” to the school, does not permit censure, since “the proposition that schools do not endorse everything they fail to censor is not complicated,” and the Constitution requires neutrality. See, Bd. of Educ. v. Mergens (1990).
Sixth, very specifically – teachers are not forced to be secular in school. They are allowed to be themselves, take part in religious activities if not as officials, privately pray, make calls relating to faith, and in non-teaching periods pray together, as they can for non-religious purposes.
One wonders how much more this policy would apply to a non-teacher, or non-instructional recreation coach, who has a poster on his door.
Yes, the Courts will have to sort out facts, apply the law. But as Christmas and Hanukkah approach, faith is no “orphan.” We should sit up, recognize that the law supports those of faith.
Bottom line: This nation was founded on faith, prospers by respect for those of faith. The Hand of Providence has rested on our shoulders, protected us in ways mysterious and inscrutable. Washington said so. Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Carter, Reagan, recently Trump, and Biden spoke to it. Our nation is not about defacing churches, defaming faith, closing services, antisemitism, or soft-walking Merry Christmas. Peace and goodwill – in schools and out – is a better way.
We hope you've enjoyed this article. While you're here, we have a small favor to ask...
Support AMAC Action. Our 501 (C)(4) advances initiatives on Capitol Hill, in the state legislatures, and at the local level to protect American values, free speech, the exercise of religion, equality of opportunity, sanctity of life, and the rule of law.Donate Now