Pray for the First Amendment

By Phil Plait | May 31, 2010 7:30 am

Via Hemant Mehta comes this story that could not have happened at a more appropriate time.

church_and_stateOne of the most basic principles of the United States, written out in the very first Amendment of the Bill of Rights, is that the government will neither endorse nor deny any specific religion, or interfere with anyone’s ability to worship or not.

This is pretty straightforward. You have the right to your religion, and I have the right to mine. You even have the right to not have a religion. But no matter what, you have the right to not have your religion interfered with.

Eric Workman, a (now-graduated) high school student in Greenwood, Indiana, understood this. That’s why, when his school administration decided to let the seniors vote on whether they wanted to have an official school-sanctioned prayer at graduation, he tried to get it stopped. He wound up having to take the case to the ACLU, and a judge ordered that no school-sanctioned prayer could be held at the ceremony.

There’s a lot to discuss here, but the most important things to remember during any of it are these:

1) Eric is correct, and

2) Eric is Christian.

That’s right, he’s not some baby-eating atheist waiting to escort the souls of the graduating class to Satan’s doorstep. He’s a Christian, but even in that extremely conservative area he understands that the Constitution, and our Founding Fathers, got it right.

Another extremely important thing to remember is that no one was keeping these students from praying. They had the right to pray as much as they wanted to before, during, and after the ceremony. The class president stood up and thanked God in her speech, and she had every right to do so, just as Eric had the right to talk about how important secularism is in school (the complete text of his speech is on reddit).

The only thing being prevented here was state-sponsored support of religion. That’s it. With all this in mind, watch the coverage this got on the local news.

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, where we take time to remember those who have died, and specifically those who have fought and died for the country. In my opinion, they didn’t fight to protect our country, they fought to protect the idea of our country. The principles for which it stands, the ideas and ideals that give people the chance to reach their full potential. That’s what America is supposed to be about, and the framework that provides that chance is the Constitution. It does not limit what the people can do*, it limits how the government can in turn limit them. You are allowed to speak freely. You are allowed to vote.

And you are allowed your religion, or lack thereof. The government cannot stop that, but neither can it actively support it. That way, everyone has the same rights, and it keeps the government from turning into a theocracy. This should be something advocated by not just the non-religious, and, in fact, should be most loudly supported by the most religious. It’s their rights being protected too.

The administration of Greenwood High School lost track of that simple fact, but ironically, their own education system worked. One student did learn it, and schooled the administration.

So it makes me happy — and proud, as an American — to say:


Picture credit: functoruser’s Flickr photostream, used under Creative Commons licensing.

* And the one time it tried to limit personal freedom — the 18th Amendment, prohibiting alcohol — was a massive, stupid, and expensive disaster from which many people still haven’t learned anything.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Politics, Religion, Skepticism

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