Prohibiting Cheerleaders the Free Exercise of Religion

The atheists have struck again.  Having discovered that a small group of cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas (pop. 2,100) were lettering Bible verses on football banners, the Freedom from Religion Foundation sprang into action.  It contacted the Kountze school authorities, presumably with threats of legal action if the religious expression was not banned.

Now the controversy is headed for a court hearing.  The cheerleaders are accused of displaying a Bible verse on the sort of banner that is held up for a few seconds at the beginning of games before players crash through it.  This activity was apparently so upsetting that one person in Kountze tipped off the Freedom from Religion group, who appear to be intent on wiping out even the tiniest vestige of religious expression in America.

This, of course, was not what our Founders intended by the First Amendment "church and state" clause.  What the clause prohibits is "the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."  What atheist groups are attempting to do, with the full cooperation of Obama's Justice Department, is precisely what the Constitution disallows: the prohibition of religion expression.  Had they intended to forbid the free exercise of religion, the Founders would not have justified independence on the basis of rights with which all men are "endowed by their Creator."  Nor would they not have concluded the Declaration with "a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence."  Nor would leaders like George Washington have invoked God dozens of times in their inaugural and farewell addresses to the American people.

What the Founders did intend was that the state not establish a particular denomination as the national religion in the way that Anglicanism had been established in Britain.  The false idea that religious expression should be driven entirely from the public sphere would have seemed perverse to every one of our nation's Founders.  It would seem that groups like Freedom from Religion are attempting to do precisely what the Constitution prohibits: to establish atheism as our nation's state religion.

Unfortunately, the widespread effort to impose atheism on America has the support of President Obama's Justice Department and of Democrat-appointed liberal judges.  The Kountze case is only one of hundreds of instances in which atheist groups have sought the government's aid in oppressing religious expression, and, in most cases, they have received it.  Intimidated by threats of lawsuits, school districts across the country have restricted prayer at school events, censored religious expression in school publications, canceled Christmas programs, eliminated references to Christmas and Easter in the school calendar, and prohibited student groups from engaging in such activities as silent prayer or the reading of the Pledge of Allegiance.

At the same time that they censor the least form of religious expression, atheist groups assert their own right to include anti-religious texts in school curriculums.  Works of literature that mock traditional faith, such as John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men or Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot (and more extreme titles such as Robert Cormier's The Chocolate War), are routinely designated as required reading.  Students are obliged to engage in sex education from early grades on, to study contraception techniques, to discuss the option of abortion, to critique capitalism, and to review the "damage" of religious wars and religious beliefs.  Christopher Columbus' devout Catholic faith is depicted as complicit in the enslavement of native populations.  The devoutly religious motivation of America's greatest presidents, from Washington to Lincoln, is ignored.  Even the crucial role that religion played in the founding of America is no longer a permissible topic.  (Thanksgiving itself has become suspect -- "thanksgiving" to Whom? -- and subsumed under "fall break.")

Yet it is somehow permissible to include and even require religious expression other than Judeo-Christianity.  The Heath Anthology of American Literature, a popular first-year text in public universities, begins with an entire section of Native American creation myths.  Similarly, the Norton Anthology of American Literature devotes its opening sections to refuting Columbus' "mistaken" conception of the Americas as a vast new opportunity for Christian mission.  Instead, it focuses on the supposedly imperialist motivations of New World emigrants, including the New England Puritans ("a different kind of colonist").  Norton's "overview" begins by noting that "Columbus's voyage to the Americas began the exploitation of Native populations by European imperial powers."  From that point on, in many classrooms, it is all downhill.

The fundamental rationale employed by atheists groups to intimidate school administrators -- the idea that Judeo-Christianity is impermissible while atheism, paganism, and environmentalism are acceptable forms of belief -- is not just false; it is viciously discriminatory, and it needs to be challenged.  Liberal judges need to be replaced with conservatives who understand that the Constitution never intended the suppression of religious expression in schools and other public spaces.  And in order to replace liberal judges at the federal level, President Obama and other liberals like him must be defeated.

Until that happens, there is another alternative -- one, ironically, endorsed by the president himself.  Called upon to enforce immigration law by deporting illegal aliens under the age of 30, Obama stated publicly that he would not enforce the law.  It would seem that this precedent could be adopted by administrators in the thousands of school districts in which atheists threaten to ban religious expression.

Not that administrators in Kountze and other districts would wish to go so far as the president, who violated his oath of office by failing to carry out his constitutional duty to enforce the law.  Administrators might simply state that they intend to enforce the law when they get around to it.  Certainly, busy administrators have better things to do than march out onto the field and confiscate banners from cheerleaders.  Those manning the public address systems on Friday nights might also conveniently absent themselves at the beginning of games, allowing citizens unaffiliated with the schools to speak their mind.  Until the courts and the Justice Department are willing to act on the behalf of religious freedom, the American people at the grassroots level might wish to follow the president's example and simply not enforce any injunction banning religious expression.

A dozen cheerleaders in a small town in east Texas will then be free to express their Christian faith, as will Americans of all faiths.  But no single faith (such as atheism) should ever be imposed on the American people.  The Pledge of Allegiance, the Ten Commandments, "God Bless America," and Christmas displays in public spaces -- all should be protected as part of the freedom of religious expression guaranteed under the First Amendment.  As George Washington stated in his Farewell Address, "[o]f all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens."

Our Founders not only tolerated the public expression of faith; they considered it indispensable.  It is a shame that liberals who now occupy the White House and dominate the courts have failed to consider President Washington's admonitions.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture, including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).