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The late Jerry Falwell and other Religious Right pioneers made a lot of political hay in the 1980s about the demise of American culture. One of their common scapegoats was the sensible judicial decision in the ’60s that ruled against government sponsored Bible reading and prayer in public schools.

Yet Falwell and company, cranking up the emotion, referred to the rational prohibition — that is consistent with First Amendment protections — as “expelling God from our schools.”

Such a description misrepresents both the guidelines and the nature of God who is not so easily controlled.

While debates over the proper roles of religion in public education continue, there is less intensity. However, I was surprised to see — mostly on Facebook — about the misconception that God was somehow kicked out of the classroom.

On one level, it is easy to see how a person of deep faith would want spiritual nurture to be provided to all school children. And it was certainly not an issue for many of us who grew up in communities with little or no religious diversity.

It was the always-insightful church observer Martin Marty, I believe, who said: “Prayer in school makes lots of sense — until you think about it.”

A little noodling can quickly lead to a discovery of the pitfalls of permitting public school educators (while performing a government function) to advance particular religious beliefs to the exclusion of others.

In most schools today, teachers and students come from all kinds of religious traditions or none. Parents who truly value the spiritual nurture provided in the home and church of their choice are not likely to want a person in authority taking on that role — especially if from a completely different religious tradition.

Fortunately, a lot of good work has gone into providing school officials with Constitutionally-sound guidelines for the proper role of religion in public education including the rights of students to voluntarily gather for religious activities. An excellent resource is Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in Public Schools by Charles Haynes and Buzz Thomas.

One of the many wonders of being an American is living in a nation that — thanks to Madison, Jefferson and others — guarantees the religious freedom of every individual. It is a freedom to celebrate, not misrepresent for political gain.

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