There are certain values and practices that Americans hold dear above all others. Somewhere near the top of that list is the boastful enjoyment of free speech and expression — one of the few of such values that is supposedly protected by the Constitution’s First Amendment, which reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Sadly, having been whittled down to shavings by overly-critical legal interpretations and applications over the years, the ideals of the First Amendment have finally begun to collapse in upon themselves. Most recently, a Second Circuit U.S. Appeals Court ruled that the use of public schools in New York City for conducting religious worship services could be perceived to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and therefore the Board of Education is within its constitutional right to prohibit the use of public schools for worship services outside of school hours. (Bronx Household of Faith, Robert Hall and Jack Roberts v. Board of Eduction of the City of New York and Community School District No. 10)
The first and most obvious problem here is that the language itself has been extended to meaning outside of what is reasonably implied by the words used. The Amendment clearly states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . ” (emphasis added) It does not say that Congress shall not allow something that expresses religion and indeed, such allowance would only validate the rest of the Amendment anyway, which says that Congress has no right to prohibit such expression or private establishment in the first place. Inasmuch as the use of a school might be perceived to be an endorsement by the government of a particular religion, more so could the prohibition of the use of such space for religious purposes be seen as a violation of the clause allowing the free expression of religion given that the space in question may be used for other non-academic, non-government-related activities outside of school hours.
What is interesting here, though, is that the court’s decision explicitly states that it is not restricting the free expression of religion or even religious activities, only that it is reasonable to restrict “religious worship services” from being conducted on school grounds. This splits hairs between the idea of viewpoint discrimination, which would be a constitutional violation, and content-based restriction, which is considered viewpoint-neutral. In summary, the court says that it is okay for people to assemble in a school building, sing hymns, hear Scripture read and taught, and even to pray, but these activities cannot be done in the context of a worship service because then they become exclusive, and exclusivity is considered viewpoint discrimination worthy of a content-based restriction.
Another question considered by the court is whether or not the use of a government-owned forum as a venue for worship is, in any way, an endorsement of any particular religion. The court says that yes, someone may reasonably perceive the use of a government facility for hosting religious worship as an endorsement of that particular faith. But the application of law should not be entirely or even primarily determined by potential perception of the situation, but only by interpretation of the law, which must be done in a much more legalistic manner than the court has done here. To interpret the language, “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” to mean, “shall be privy to no religious worship practices” takes exceptional liberty in determining what the original language was seeking to convey.
Furthermore, the government takes no pains to exclude certain religious material from other government-owned or -endorsed materials, all of which may be perceived to be governmental support for the Christian or Jewish faith. United States currency, for example, proclaims, “In God We Trust,” which I would think a far greater endorsement of religion than the use of a public school since not all public schools host church services, nor do they all brand themselves as subscribing to any particular spiritual entity, yet all currency pieces contain this proclamation. We can also consider the Oath of Allegiance for those wishing to become U.S. Citizens, which ends with the phrase, “so help me, God.” This phrase is now optional, but the fact that it exists in the default suggests endorsement because it says that if you do not choose to exclude God from your oath, then the government will choose for you to include Him, indicating a preference. On the other hand, the government has not chosen for students and teachers to attend school on Sundays when Christian worship takes place, but only during the week when classes are in session, which means that the government is actually endorsing education, not the establishment of a religious ceremony which may be attended by people even outside of the school district, i.e., beyond the establishment of the government. Finally, the courts themselves still use Christian Bibles when swearing in witnesses. Whether or not this is an option for witnesses — I confess, I do not know — remains a moot point; it is the default, the choice of the government, and therefore may be reasonably perceived to be an endorsement of the Christian faith by the courts because it implies that swearing on the Christian holy book is more consequential than swearing on any other book.
The court, though, has dodged all of these criticisms by saying that it is not the expression of religion on government settings that is prohibited, but specifically religious worship. The argument, again, is that the activity of religious worship includes religious expression, but the expressions themselves do not necessarily constitute worship services, which are exclusive, and therefore might violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. I should think, however, that most Christians would disagree with the idea that the forms of religious expression protected by the law do not constitute worship, and since it seems that “worship” more than “services” is what the government takes issue with, I think this is an important point. While I may not conduct a worship “service” in my home when I pray, prayer is most certainly an act of “worship,” as are the acts of singing hymns, reading and teaching Scripture, etc. I cannot say unequivocally for other religions, but it seems to me that any time a person removes him- or herself from the secular in order to be engaged in the religious, it is an act of worship, not simply an expression of my faith. If I say that I believe in Jesus, I am expressing my religion, but once I begin to speak to Jesus, I am engaged in an act of worship, going far beyond a mere indication that I prefer Jesus to Mohammed, etc. Indeed, Dictionary.com offers one definition of “worship” simply as, “to feel an adoring reverence or regard for (any person or thing).” By this definition, the court’s decision suggests that any time I set foot on government property, the government may be perceived as endorsing a religion because I am always feeling an adoring reverence and regard for my Creator, and therefore perpetually engaged in an act of worship.
The court also said that schools are perfectly within their right to prohibit the conducting of worship activities because such prohibitions do not effectively impede the expression of love or reverence for those activities. The court uses martial arts and horseback riding, among others, as non-religious examples. These activities may be rightfully prohibited on government property because such prohibition seeks “the objective of avoiding either harm to persons or property, or liability, or a mess, which those activities may produce.” (Bronx Household of Faith v. NYC Board of Education) But then the practice of religious worship would have to threaten either persons or property, risk liability for said persons or property, or threaten to create more of a mess than, say, a school cafeteria during lunchtime. How to quantify such things is beyond me, but it seems reasonable to deduce that a religious worship service would be, in no way, more dangerous or messy than a typical day at a school full of children or adolescents, and while activities such as horseback-riding are prone to significantly impair the forum before and after the event, church services are not. Further, the purpose of the forum — to educate children, which the Supreme Court found to also include moral instruction — is not impaired by a church’s activities conducted outside of the forum’s standard hours anymore than they would be if a prom were to be held on school grounds despite the fact that some students and parents may morally disagree with the practice of dancing.
If it has been deemed permitted and protected by the U.S. Constitution for individuals or groups who are lawfully occupying government premises to express religious views on those premises, including the singing of hymns, the reading of and instruction in Scripture, acts of prayer, and other individual components of worship, then it is contradictory and even hypocritical to prohibit the actual worship service itself since it consists of no more than the individual components for which the government makes allowance. If the mere existence of a worship service in a school building can be seen as the government making a law to establish religion, then so should be seen the use of religious language on government money or in government courts when swearing in witnesses or receiving new citizens. If the issue at hand is only to avoid giving individuals the perception that the government has established a religion, then we cannot rely on the First Amendment at all because it doesn’t address the perceptions of the public, but only the actions of the government, and specifically, the legislation. Since no law was passed establishing a religion, yet a law threatens to be passed prohibiting a specific expression of religion, it seems logical to deduce that the government actually finds itself much closer to a First Amendment violation now than it was when churches were merely indulging in that same Amendment’s provision for the free expression of religion.
The freedoms of speech and religion were enacted to prohibit religious persecution that resulted in oppression and death, not to shield the people of this country from any viewpoint, religious or otherwise, that might be in contrast to their own traditional family values or personal opinion. Such a shield would only reinstate the very same idealistic tyranny that the early Americans first opposed and denounced, thus infringing upon, rather than furthering, the luxury of freedom we tend to thoughtlessly take for granted today.