Americans believe in religious freedom.
More than nine in 10 U.S. respondents to a 2006 Pew Forum survey said it was “very important” to live in a country where they can practice their religion freely. Only 5 percent of respondents to the 2009 State of the First Amendment survey commissioned by the First Amendment Center said there is too much religious freedom in the United States. Yet from the nation’s earliest days, when religious tests for office were commonplace, and continuing through a history burdened by virulent anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism, there have always been powerful efforts to limit religious expression. Now, at a time when the nation is lamenting a loss of civility, engaged in a war on terror and divided on immigration issues, the challenge emerging again is how to preserve religious liberty for all. There may be temptation to legislate against an Islamic center being built near Ground Zero or to prohibit a pastor from publicly burning Qurans, but
Few issues in American public life engender more controversy than religion and public education. Unfortunately, this topic is all too often shrouded in confusion and misinformation. When discussing this matter, it's important to keep in mind some basic facts. Ninety percent of America's youngsters attend public schools. These students come from homes that espouse a variety of religious and philosophical beliefs. Given the incredible diversity of American society, it's important that our public schools respect the beliefs of everyone and protect parental rights. The schools can best do this by not sponsoring religious worship. This principle ensures that America's public schools are welcoming to all children and leaves decisions about religion where they belong with the family. The U.S. Supreme Court has been vigilant in forbidding public schools and other agencies of the government to interfere with Americans' constitutional right to follow their own consciences when it comes to religion. In 1962, the justices ruled that official prayer had no place in public education. This decision is widely misunderstood today. The court did not rule that students are forbidden to pray on their own; the justices merely said that government officials had no business composing a prayer for students to recite. The Engel v. Vitale case came about because parents in New York challenged a prayer written by a New York education board. These Christian, Jewish and Unitarian parents did not want their children subjected to state-sponsored devotions. The high court agreed that the scheme amounted to government promotion of religion. In the following year, 1963, the Supreme Court handed down another important ruling dealing with prayer in public schools. In Abington Township School District v. Schempp, the court declared school-sponsored Bible reading and recitation of the Lord's Prayer unconstitutional. Since those rulings, a myth has sprung up asserting that Madalyn Murray O'Hair, a prominent atheist, "removed prayer from public schools." In fact, the 1962 case was brought by a group of New York parents who had no connection to O'Hair, and the 1963 case was filed by a Unitarian family from the Philadelphia area. O'Hair, at that time a resident of Baltimore, had filed a similar lawsuit, which the high court consolidated with the Pennsylvania case. It is important to remember that in these decisions the Supreme Court did not "remove prayer from public schools." The court removed only government-sponsored worship. Public school students have always had the right to pray on their own as class schedules permit. Also, the Supreme Court did not rule against official prayer and Bible reading in public schools out of hostility to religion. Rather, the justices held that these practices were examples of unconstitutional government interference with religion. Thus, the exercises violated the First Amendment. Nothing in the 1962 or 1963 rulings makes it unlawful for public school...
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