By Rob Boston
I’m all for “Religious Freedom Day,” an annual nationwide event that takes place Jan. 16 to mark the passage of one of the great milestone of freedom of conscience in America: passage of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom.
But I’m not for people using the anniversary of this important document to spread misinformation about church-state separation and religious freedom in America – and that’s just what the Religious Right is doing.
The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) and Gateways to Better Education have joined forces to promote an event called “Religious Freedom Sunday” that takes place Jan. 15. They are focusing on the role of religion in public schools.
A casual visitor to the groups’ website might think it sounds reasonable. After all, Americans United supports the right of students to engage in voluntary religious activities in public schools. Students can, for example, say grace before a meal or read a Bible during free time.
Gateways and the ADF are experts at taking a reasonable piece of information and using it to make a wild leap. The website contains a short video claiming that students can include their faith in homework assignments, witness to fellow students and share their faith in the classroom.
Are these things really legal? Maybe and maybe not. It all depends on the circumstances. Interjecting your faith into homework might not be a good idea if it’s completely irrelevant to the assignment. And “sharing your faith” with a fellow classmate can rise to the level of harassment if it’s done repeatedly. If Emma tells Brad 25 times that she doesn’t want to go to church with him, school officials have the right to tell Brad to stop asking.
Can a student get up and give a sermon during graduation or another school event? Not according to several federal courts.
Gateways and the ADF make a big deal out of the fact that they are relying on guidelines promulgated by the U.S. Department of Education. That’s true, but in my view they are guilty of distorting those guidelines. They are pulling selective quotes from the document and failing to give their proper context.
This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Gateways, after all, is the group that a few years ago issued a pamphlet featuring a talking Easter Bunny encouraging teachers to discuss the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus in public schools.
Religious Freedom Day deserves to be celebrated. It’s sad to see aggressive Religious Right groups trying to hijack the event. It’s also ironic. Groups like the ADF and Gateways spend most of their time trying to get public schools and other government institutions to adopt their narrow version of Christianity. This is the exact opposite of what Jefferson’s majestic Statute stands for.
If you want to commemorate Religious Freedom Day, I recommend three important actions. First, read (or re-read) the Virginia Statute. Its soaring language will inspire you. Second, take a minute to recommit to the Statute’s principles and vow to support and work with Americans United to defend them.
Finally, find out what the law really says about religion in public schools so you can debunk Religious Right calumny. This site is a good place to start.