What would Jesus do?

A high school girl in Rhode Island, the daughter of a firefighter and a nurse, is facing death threats and widespread hatred for supporting the U.S. Constitution.

In the 1960s her public school had placed an eight-foot-tall prayer on a wall in the school auditorium. Apparently some school officials at the time had decided that it was the government-operated school’s job — not that of churches or parents or students themselves — to tell children how to pray, and no one there had had the sense in the meantime to correct that mistake. A number of people, including students, objected to this government intrusion into private faith and tried to get the school to remove it, petitioning the school board as well as talking with school officials. Eventually the matter made it before a federal court, which of course ruled, correctly, that the local government was out of line.

Unfortunately, some residents of the town have gone bananas over this, apparently missing the point and supposing that a reasonable restriction on government was somehow an attack on religious faith.

One reason is that the one of the objecting students, the one who agreed to a request to serve as plaintiff in the case, calls herself an atheist, having lost her Catholic faith in childhood when prayers for her ailing mother seemed not to help. She was selected as plaintiff because under the law, a citizen can’t just sue to force the government to follow the law or the Constitution; the plaintiff has to show that his or her own rights were harmed in order to achieve what’s called “standing” — the right to sue to redress damage to oneself.

It’s remarkable to think that the people threatening this young woman apparently consider them followers of Jesus, who was also on record favoring separation of church and state (Matthew 22:21, Mark 12:17, Luke 20:25) and opposing showy public prayer (Matthew 6:5-8).

More recently, Rhode Island was itself founded by advocates of religious freedom, and entanglement of church and state was also opposed by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other Founding Fathers. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (drafted by Madison) clearly prohibits “an establishment of religion” — that is, a government-approved choice of religion — as well as forbidding the government to interfere with private exercise of religions faith. As a result children are completely free to pray in school on their own or in private groups, but the school can’t lawfully tell them when, how, or what to pray.

Incidentally, only 10 years after the ratification of the Constitution, President Adams signed and the Senate unanimously ratified a short treaty that was then published in many American newspapers, often on the front page. Article 11 of that treaty notes in part that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” something that raised no objections because it was widely understood at the time that the government was supposed to be neutral on matters of religion, that being a matter of individual conscience.

It’s a shame some people in Rhode Island don’t know their history.

[revised slightly from original post for clarity]

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