Link between court, shootings questioned

Marshall L. Harris of Elk River (“Supreme Court took God out of schools,” Jan. 5) makes a common error in positing a link between the Supreme Court’s Everson decision (and related cases) and events like the recent shootings in a Connecticut elementary school. My response is not theological. Many have wondered, “Where was God?” Mr. Harris wishes he had the answer; I don’t pretend to have that answer, either.

While I respect and appreciate Mr. Harris for his service, many of the claims he makes regarding the Supreme Court and church-state separation are incorrect. The specific case he references, with a glancing attack on the ACLU, Everson v. Board of Education, was a complicated case decided in 1947. A key component of the ruling was that the U.S. Constitution does mandate a strict wall of separation between church and state. Mr. Harris notes that the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution. Neither does the phrase “checks and balances,” but the principles behind the actual wording of the document can be rightly inferred from other sources, such as the Federalist Papers and the writings of Madison and Jefferson.

The Everson decision did not “take God out of schools.” Is Justice Black more powerful than God? What Everson and subsequent cases confirmed is that the state, in this case through the public schools, cannot favor one religious belief system over another, or religious belief over lack of belief. Mr. Harris makes several claims about the perceived negative effect of Everson, et al:

•Ten Commandments have been removed from any place in our schools — True. Schools cannot post the Ten Commandments or any other religious document in a such a way that the school appears to be endorsing that particular belief.

•School prayer in a fashion has been declared unconstitutional — Mr. Harris slyly inserts the qualifier “in a fashion” because he knows there is still prayer in schools. What is unconstitutional is mandatory prayer, Bible readings, etc., that are imposed by the school on the student body. Students can still pray whenever they feel moved to do so, as long as they are not disruptive or interfering with the learning environment.

•It is unconstitutional for any student to arrive early, forming a prayer group — Citation needed. There are very specific requirements that dictate how schools deal with student-led activities and groups. Schools must be “viewpoint-neutral” and must provide at the very least a faculty sponsor and facilities for the group. If students wish to arrive early and pray together, the school cannot prevent that, excepting security limitations.

Furthermore, students’ right to free expression, the other, often forgotten clause of the First Amendment, is not inhibited. Students may use or cite religious material in their work freely. Students may pray singly or in groups. Students may bring Bibles, Korans, the Upanishads, or the writings of Dawkins and Hitchens. They can read these books whenever they wish, within classroom limitations, and may quote them in their schoolwork. God is in the schools.

How would Mr. Harris feel if the school day opened with readings from the Koran over the loudspeaker, with every student listening in homeroom, and periodically throughout the day students were required to face Mecca and at least make a pretense of praying to Allah? And instead of the Ten Commandments on the wall in the gym, there was a plaque listing the Noble Eight-fold Path? Just as schools cannot impose the beliefs and practices of Islam and Buddhism on students, neither can schools impose Christian beliefs and practices. Irrespective of the Constitution, a simple respect for all students requires this. — Christopher Borum, Elk River