It’s somewhat tragic that upholding something as fundamental as the separation of church and state is often demeaned by Christians. Yet a denial of this foundational principle occurs with great frequency and is often accompanied by a lot of pejorative “sloganizing.”
The irony is that in many cases the offended Christians reference “religious liberty” as the basis for actions that clearly violate a separation of church and state.
The most recent instance I’ve heard about took place over the use of biblical texts on the banners of a Georgia high school football team in Catoosa County. The cheerleaders had been writing Bible verses on signs that the team ran through as it came onto the field.
According to news reports, a person from the community raised a question about the constitutionality of such actions, given that the cheerleaders were using school funds to construct the signs and, as school representatives, were displaying them at a school event.
The person was not offended but worried an issue could arise and wanted to protect the school district from potential problems. The school superintendent ruled that it was a violation of the First Amendment because it constituted an endorsement of a faith tradition by a government organization.
A report in the local paper quoted two respondents who declared that “it’s freedom of religion not freedom from religion” and “it’s just bizarre when that we live at a time where a single complaint from one hypersensitive person can trample the right to free speech for an entire community.”
While these individuals are certainly entitled to their opinion, this is precisely the pejorative sloganizing I referenced earlier. Such statements bear witness to a sad reality: Christians ought to be the champions of religious liberty, yet Christians often defend their religious freedom to the exclusion of others.
The First Amendment is intended to protect the freedom of religion (free exercise clause) and the freedom from religion (establishment clause). Yet one is left to wonder why the concept is so difficult for many Christians to grasp. Even if Christians happen to be the overwhelming majority in a community, this does not abrogate the First Amendment, which protects individuals from having religious beliefs forced upon them.
Though there are likely many Christians who agree with the school’s decision, there are too many who promote themselves as defenders of religious liberty by saying that one complaint “tramples the right of free speech for an entire community.”
To which I respond: How does it prevent you from freely expressing your beliefs? How are you hindered from expressing your faith because you cannot display a Bible verse on a school banner? You can wear religious T-shirts and pray in schools, share your faith with your classmates, attend Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings, and, in this Georgia school, display your religious signs 50 yards from the football stadium.
The only thing the First Amendment does, and the superintendent’s decision supports, is prevent a governmental organization from forcing beliefs upon people, however prominent that religious tradition may be.
Probably the best way to explain the issue is to change the group promoting their religious sayings. What if there were quotations from the Quran or the Book of Mormon or another religious group on the banner? What if the majority of the community was atheist and the banners read, “There is no god: eat, drink and be merry”? Would it be acceptable to continue displaying such statements? If no, why is it acceptable for Christians, but not others?
This is the problem often missed amid the sloganized and pejorative banter. This decision is not a denial of Christians’ rights to freely express their beliefs. It’s a defense of non-Christians’ rights to not have Christian beliefs forced upon them.
Separation of church and state should be upheld even if a community existed that was 100 percent Christian. It’s not a matter of the majority wins. That’s what the First Amendment intends to avoid. It’s a matter of avoiding a union of church and state by protecting everyone’s right to believe or not believe as they see fit.
So the next time you find yourself angered by the “trampling of free speech” by “one person,” put yourself in their shoes and see how you feel. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll realize that as Christians we should be front and center in defending the rights of every person – whether they believe in one god, 10 gods or no god – to freely express their beliefs and to be free from beliefs being forced upon them by any government organization.
After all, Jesus said that we were to be known by our self-sacrificial love (John 13:35), not by our Christian bumper stickers, T-shirts or football signs. Such love shines forth unabated when we defend the religious liberty of all peoples, not just ourselves.