Put God back in schools? He never left
Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

"If we’re willing to give up freedom of conscience so easily at home, then what are we fighting for in Afghanistan?"

I’m hearing that question — or something close to it — from people around the country disturbed about new efforts to "put God back into the classroom."

The governor of Texas calls for the return of school-sponsored prayer. Legislators in South Carolina want to change the "moment of silence" into a "moment of prayer." And schools in many places are being pressured to post anything with God’s name in it from the Ten Commandments to "In God We Trust" to "God Bless America."

Contrary to popular myth, this isn’t really an argument about "school prayer" or about the Supreme Court "kicking God out of our schools." Under current law, kids are free to pray in public schools alone or in groups — as long as they aren’t disruptive and don’t infringe upon the rights of others. No Supreme Court decision has ever outlawed prayer or God from the schools.

But if God isn’t banned from public schools, then why do so many people want Him back? Because they want much more than the freedom for students to express their faith — they want the schools to formally acknowledge that our nation is dependent upon God.

For advocates of teacher-led prayer, invocations over the p.a. system, or posting the Ten Commandments in classrooms, it isn’t enough that Johnny can pray with his friends, invite people to his church, bring his scriptures to school, or form a Bible club. They want schools to reflect their view of America as a "Christian nation." And they resent attempts to prevent the faith of the majority from being expressed in school practices or at school events.

A great many Americans resonate to this vision of America, especially in times of national crisis. After all, "In God We Trust" was added to our money in the wake of the Civil War. And "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 at the height of the struggle against communism. That’s because a good number of Americans believe that when our nation fails to acknowledge God — when we fall away from God as a people — we invite disaster. This is exactly what Jerry Falwell was trying to say in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

But let’s not forget that most of our country’s founders had a very different vision of America. From the "haven for the cause of conscience" founded by Roger Williams in Rhode Island to the "holy experiment" of religious freedom in William Penn’s Pennsylvania to the full disestablishment of religion in the Virginia of Thomas Jefferson, America became the first place on earth to end the entanglement of church and state.

None of these men were anti-religious. On the contrary, Williams was so devout that he couldn’t find a church that lived up to his understanding of the Gospel. Penn was a committed Quaker. And Jefferson a Deist with definite ideas about "nature’s God."

In spite of the differences in their religious beliefs, all three shared Williams’ conviction that "God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state." Civil states, Williams argued, must be "essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual or Christian state and worship."

In other words, to put it more bluntly, some of our greatest founders believed that separating church from state is not just good for the body politic — it is required by God. And they all were convinced that confusing church and state has been the leading cause of repression and coercion throughout history. Today we need look no further than Afghanistan to see how right they were.

That’s why it’s so important not to let the governor of Texas or anyone else use this time of crisis to erode freedom of conscience. Re-imposing state prayers or state religion won’t save America. Only by upholding our fundamental liberties will America endure.

Remember, the First Amendment already allows for plenty of student religious expression during the school day. We don’t need school officials telling the kids what that expression should or should not be.