Recently I received this story by e-mail:
They walked in tandem, each of the 93 students filing into the already crowded auditorium. With rich maroon gowns flowing and the traditional caps, they looked almost as grown up as they felt. Dads swallowed hard behind broad smiles, and moms freely brushed away tears.
This class would not pray during the commencement not by choice but because of a recent court ruling prohibiting it. The principal and several students were careful to stay within the guidelines allowed by the ruling.
They gave inspirational and challenging speeches, but no one mentioned divine guidance and no one asked for blessings on the graduates or their families.
The speeches were nice, but they were routine until the final speech received a standing ovation.
A solitary student walked proudly to the microphone. He stood still and silent for just a moment, and then, it happened. The other 92 students, every single one of them, suddenly SNEEZED!!!!
The student on stage simply looked at the audience and said, "GOD BLESS YOU, each and every one of you!" And he walked off-stage.
The audience exploded into applause. The graduating class had found a unique way to invoke God's blessing on their future with or without the court's approval!
Isn't this a wonderful story?
Pass it on to all your friends.
No, it is not a wonderful story for at least three reasons:
1: The event described violates the clear teaching of Scripture.
In Matthew 6:5-6, our Lord said: "And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you."
2: It glorifies students' disobeying the law, with the encouragement of their parents and other relatives.
The schools of this country, both private and public, ought to teach students to obey the law. The citizens of America are concerned with crime in our cities. No one would want to compare this sneeze episode with the horrendous rape, murder and pillage that are seen on our streets and glorified on TV. They are not of the same magnitude.
But the story illustrates the inclination of many in our society to break the law and impose religion on society by using state-created captive audiences. The schools must teach, at an irreducible minimum, respect for and obedience to the law of the land.
3: The story is correct that the prohibition on commencement prayers in public schools is based on a 1992 Supreme Court decision, Lee v. Weisman.
The opinion was written by Anthony Kennedy, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan and is one of the more conservative justices on the Supreme Court. But the decision was not designed to be hostile to religion.
The decision recognized that our society is religiously pluralistic. Not everyone believes in God the same way; some do not believe at all. But they are all Americans. They are all entitled to religious freedom. They are all entitled to not have the government or any instrument of government impose religion upon them.
The sneeze story implies that all the members of the graduating class participated in eliciting the blessing of God. Perhaps so. But that would not always be the case.
Remember that peer pressure in junior high and high school is enormous. Students who may have objections religiously based objections to prayer in classrooms or commencements may find it very difficult to express those against the majority.
But, you may say, in this country the majority rules.
Not in constitutional matters.
As Justice Robert Jackson eloquently said in 1943 in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette: "One's right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections."
The precious concept of religious freedom means that every person in this country is free to practice his or her religion. But the idea of separation of church and state means that one may not use the state as an instrument to practice that religion. And that means that all Americans, including students in public schools, are entitled to not have the government or any agent of government impose religion upon them.
Let us step back from this specific issue to look at a larger principle: the difference between toleration and freedom toleration of religion and freedom of religion.
We frequently say that the Founders of our nation created a system of toleration of religion. But they did not. They created a system of religious freedom.
What is the difference?
Toleration means that the government regulates the religious situation. It usually means that a particular religion or religious tradition is favored, but others are allowed to exist. The others may even be allowed wide latitude for religious belief and practice. But the concept of toleration still holds the power in the government to determine the religious situation.
Many countries have this system. In England, the Church of England is the established church. It receives financial and political favors from the government that other religious groups do not receive. Although other religious groups may have wide leeway to practice their faiths, the government still has the power to limit their religious freedom or, indeed, to take away their permission to exist.
Religious freedom is different from toleration. Religious freedom means that the government has no say in whether a religion may exist in the country. It means that the government has no say in what a religion teaches or how it is practiced, with the proviso that religious practice may not harm the public welfare.
The Founders of America created a Constitution of limited government. In doing so, they gave us religious freedom. When they wrote in the First Amendment that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," they meant that religion should be free from government support or control.
That is, they also meant that government should step back so religious people and groups could be free to practice their faiths as they chose. That means that groups or individuals may not use the machinery of the government to practice their religion. There cannot be any governmentally enforced expression of religion, such as prayer in public school commencements.
America's Founders also wrote in Article VI of the Constitution that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."
In this election season, considerable notice has been made of the role of religion in the campaign. But the Founders' cautionary note in the Constitution is a reminder that one's religious faith, or lack thereof, ought never to be a part of partisan politics. God does not favor one party over another.
Many argue that they want their leaders to be people of principle and morality. That is certainly a fair-enough expectation. The presumption is that those principles and morality will be derived from religion. That is a logical assumption also. We consequently want our leaders and candidates for leadership to be religious.
But the Founders remembered that in colonial America one could not hold public office if he were not a member of the established church. That certainly limited the possibility for a wide range of qualified candidates.
So the Founders eliminated the possibility of a national established religion in the First Amendment and forbade religious tests of qualification for public office in Article VI.
Both candidates and office holders have the right to be religious and to express their religiosity. But the prohibition against religious tests for public office is a reminder that God does not play partisan politics.
And it is a cautionary note that politicians should not use religion against their opponents. Religiosity as a political tool can so easily lead to self-righteousness.
But you may respond to all this by concluding that separation of church and state is hostile to religion. For the Constitution to forbid religious tests for public office and to not allow government sponsorship of or mandate for religious ceremonies in government institutions such as public schools must mean that separation of church and state is hostile to religion.
People often ask me why, given that I am a Christian and an ordained minister, I am such an advocate for separation of church and state.
The answer, of course, is: because I am a Christian and an ordained minister.
I take my faith very seriously. For faith to be insulated from the corroding influences of government and politics is a good thing. Remember that part of the concept of the separation of church and state is the Founders' explicit command that government should not prohibit the free exercise of religion.
Separation of church and state enables faith to flourish without interference from government power. Separation of church and state has allowed religion to be as vibrant, dynamic and lively as it is in American society.
To be sure, government may not use religion as a tool to get its way with the people. It is illegitimate for government to advance or inhibit religion.
Separation demands that government get out of the way and let people respond to the divine as they will. The people do that, and in America religion is a major part of the culture. Separation of church and state is not hostile to religion but rather is the enabler for religions to grow and prosper in America.
But many in our time are fearful of true freedom. They are not willing to trust the people to practice their religion as they choose. Rather, they want the government to somehow promote religion.
So we have presidential executive orders to provide government money to charitable programs operated by religious institutions. We have legislatures across the country passing laws and resolutions to post the Ten Commandments in public buildings. We have continual efforts, including bills in Congress to amend the Constitution, to promote prayer and devotionals in public schools. On and on.
But there are at least two problems with this trend. One is that in the effort to have government-promoted religion, religion is often trivialized. For example, in many of the Ten Commandments displays, in the effort to avoid being an obvious Establishment Clause violation, other famous sayings are often added. These are bits from the Declaration of Independence, the Code of Hammurabi or Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address. They are all fine sayings in and of themselves. But it is clear that they are providing cover for the Ten Commandments. There is a bit of intellectual dishonesty going on there.
What we really have is a kind of theological bait-and-switch operation. Rather than be content with aggressively teaching the Ten Commandments in their churches, synagogues and homes, many are more interested in playing theological hide-and-seek to sneak the Commandments onto public buildings and monuments.
Another example of the trivialization of religion is the story with which I began. In the attempt to be able to get a prayer into the commencement, albeit ever so brief a prayer, someone went to great lengths to organize all 93 seniors and coordinate the great sneeze. Then, responding to this stimulus like Pavlov's dog, a person was able to say: "God bless you, each and every one of you!"
It reminds me of what we used to sing as junior high kids at church camp: "Hooray for Jesus. Hooray for Jesus. Someone in the crowd's shouting, 'Hooray for Jesus.'" A statement of belief, but bordering on the trite. Hardly profound theology.
Finally, the attempt to get the state to promote religion has great potential to harm the church. I am amazed that some ministers, TV religious personalities and even denominational leaders are so eager to get the government to do the work of the church. In the interest in getting religion more into the public life of the country, they run the risk of marginalizing the church. The more the state does the work of the church, the less relevant the church will become.
Although it probably was unwitting on their part, the Founders of this country gave religious people the ideal methodology for vital, energetic, robust, vigorous religious institutions. They gave us the separation of church and state with its corollary: religious freedom. Free from government dominance or interference, churches could flourish in this country, and they have.
But now, in these latter days, in the interest of trying to improve public morality, many believe that the church must utilize the state to get its way with the people. That is a prescription to make the church subservient to the state, to marginalize it and make it less dynamic.
Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black once wrote that separation of church and state "stands as an expression of principle on the part of the Founders of our Constitution that religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy to permit its 'unhallowed perversion' by a civil magistrate."
Isn't that a wonderful concept?
Pass it on to all your friends.
Ronald B. Flowers is a professor at Texas Christian University and author of History of Religion in America. He is a member of Americans United's Board of Trustees. This essay was published first in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. The Viewpoint column is a forum for varied opinions and does not necessarily represent the stance of Americans United.