In recent days there has been consternation in some circles over Virginia’s recently elected Governor McAuliffe’s vetoing SB 236, a bill that passed the Virginia House of Delegates and Senate allowing for student driven prayer and religious meetings in public schools. At first glance it seems to be an innocuous bill. The bill’s proponents argued that it would allow for prayer, religious meetings and artwork/signs much like is allowed for other clubs, organizations and civic/athletic groups.
The Governor argued that though the bill allowed for religious activity by any faith tradition, functionally it would present local school administrators with an impossible mandate to give equal treatment to all without resulting in the giving of preferences to some groups over another. There is some validity to his view, particularly when conflicts for space occur or a range of activities and space are requested at a might higher rate than another. A school administration could find themselves in a difficult position when one faith seeks to put up a religious symbol in proximity to another symbol which may be viewed with anger by the other by its placement or timing.
Does government not permitting the exercise of religious activity in our schools and public space turn the government into being anti-religion? McAuliffe argues that neutrality is not an anti-religion position, and for the smooth functioning of society within a civic space such as schools, that neutrality provides for least conflicts. On the other hand, the proponents of SB 236 loudly and forcefully exclaim yes to that question. They argue that the law is there to protect religion, ensuring that religious can be welcomed and take place in schools and that to bar such expression devalues the place of faith and its roll in society and the lives of a school’s students.
Yet is the proponent’s argument that simple? Or is their effort to position Christian expression as the most visible and dominant faith in the schools, and in at that, the more fundamentalist and evangelical understanding of Christianity? Is it that simple for schools to balance and give equal allowance for all religions?
When the forgers of the Constitution were shaping the founding documents they had the clear option of ingraining into the founding document an unapologetic declaration that the United States is a Christian nation. It was not a strange or uncommon notion for at the time Great Britain and several European nations were formally recognized as Christian nations in their governing documents.
Most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the shapers of the Constitution were men of faith. While for a few going to church may have been more a cultural or family expectation, most were sincere in their piety and earnest about practicing their faith. Some were more conservative and evangelical whereas others more liberal or even deists. A small number of notables like Franklin and Jefferson, appear to not have been of faith by any of modern definitions of faith commonly utilized by modern evangelicals, or even by even the definitions of the mainstream church of the day.
Though the framers were living in a highly Christian culture, why did they not take the opportunity to declare the nation as a Christian nation? It could not have been something simply overlooked. Why did these men not define the United States as a Christian nation rather than speaking in broader terms to God or a Supreme Being in their documents without any further definition? Why did they instead state “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
In an ideal situation in a nation where true freedom of and from religion exists there would be no need for the proposed law SB 236. Prayer and religious meetings by groups of any religion background would not only be tolerated but accepted at school as having value for both the participants and, to a degree, the overall community. Each would conduct their private and personal activity, respecting others of different faiths, and not using the school and other civic meetings and celebrations as proselytizing opportunities, and not being offended by the teachings, preaching and symbols of another.
In that plethora of religious expressions and acceptance would be a host of Christian denominations, ranging from those who believe that their particular denomination are the only true followers of Jesus Christ to evangelical religious streams who openly engage in sharing to the more liberal traditions who are may not be as demonstrative as other Christians. There would also be openly practicing Muslims with their various traditions with some reading and preaching from the Koran more openly and demonstratively than others. The various Hebrew traditions would also observing and talking openly about their faith without conflicts between them and the Muslims, or them and some Christians seeking to persuade them to become Messianic Jews. There would also be Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists, Satanists, etc, each having their religious symbols displayed as openly as Christian ones. Of course in the mix would be the meetings of professed atheists talking about why they hold that there is no God while people of their various faiths respectfully accepting and tolerating the atheists.
Is it possible that the nation’s founders recognized that such openness though ideal was an unrealistic expectation of their citizens to live out in every day practice? Is it possible that they readily recognized that differing religions can become that ground for civil discord, that even with the Christians traditions over the course of human existence heated feelings and disagreements existed over various points of the Christian faith they hold in common. And if Christians who then hold so much in common end up in armed conflict with one another with faith differences as part of the cause, did they then acknowledge to themselves that there was slim hope that peace across a diversity of different religions would occur if they all worked and practiced their faith in the public square at the same time? Is it possible that in the framers accepted that the best position for government to take on religion was a neutral one, that it is better to rule and govern all its citizens equally, showing no preference to one religion over the other, promoting none of the other thereby allowing and encouraging its citizens to practice their faith privately in their homes and places of worship according to their own teachings and beliefs, and to work civilly alongside each other as the live and work together? If so, then it seems that they felt religious neutrality by government was from being anti-religion but instead became the guarantor of the freedom of all religions and the ground from which each could flourish and find expression in communities across their young land.
Over two centuries later has our society progressed and matured to the point where we can readily accept open expressions of divergent religions without conflict? Are the Virginia proponents of SB 236 arguing that those with whom they worship with on Sunday, that their children and grandchildren, their friends and associates are so highly tolerant of each other religions that they would not take issue with Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists putting up signs in the local schools inviting others to their worship observances? Are they saying that the crowd on at the Friday night high school football game, or the college game on Saturday, would accept either Muslim or Hindu opening the game with a prayer from those religions?
Are they saying that there would be no controversy from amongst themselves or their constituents if a Muslim or Buddhist opened an upcoming meeting of the House of Delegates in prayer? Are they saying that the citizens in their districts would not be up in arms if the 10 Commandments were placed in front of the Legislature and within a few yards there be a statue of Buddha and a Satanist of some sort? If they have that confidence, the proponents of SB 236 are certainly a most optimistic lot with regard to their evaluation of the spirit, tolerance and nature of our citizenry.