The Cherokee County (GA) School Board has voted unanimously to keep their high school graduation ceremony at its current venue. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State* has threatened legal action if Cherokee County schools don’t move their commencement ceremony from the First Baptist Church of Woodstock, where the commencements have been held since 2005, to a secular venue. The organization says it received a complaint from a resident.
Never mind that using the church is twenty times cheaper than using any secular venue available and municipal and state governments are in a serious budget pinch. Ignore the fact that all secular venues large enough are outside of Cherokee County. Forget that Americans United for Separation of Church and State has received, according to them, just one complaint in the almost six years since the venue first began being used. According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, there is no excuse for holding a government high school graduation at an non-secular venue.
“Personally, I feel it was the right thing to do, to stand up for what we believe in and pursue what’s best for the students,” Robert Rechsteiner, the newly elected board chairman, told the [Atlanta Journal-Constitution].
Rechsteiner said the board was not worried about the cost of a potential legal battle since a few law firms said they would offer free legal services to the county if needed.
Police estimated almost 200 people attended Thursday night’s meeting appeared to stand with the school board. No one spoke out publicly against the location.
“I think everyone in the community, to a certain extent, took offense to an outside organization coming into our community and telling us what we should and shouldn’t be doing,” said supporter Darleen Prem.
Some parents and supporters have declared they will set up a legal defense fund, according to radio reports.
There’s one little secret that Americans United for the Separation of Church and State doesn’t want you to know about the Constitution: The First Amendment doesn’t guarantee a “separation of church and state”, but rather prevents the Congress (and by extension, the various States) from establishing a state religion. These are different concepts. The First Amendment doesn’t separate religion from government, it merely prevents government from choosing one in preference over another. It has nothing whatsoever to do with preventing people from being exposed to religious iconography.
Let’s look at the relevant text of the First Amendment:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;
Do the words “separation of church and state” appear there? No. Parse it down by the phrases:
“Congress shall make no law…”
This means that the government cannot make a law, rule, ordinance or regulation. It does not mean that the government is prevented from ever interacting with religious groups, organizations or individuals.
“…respecting an establishment of religion…”
That’s the critical phrase here. This “establishment clause” is what the Separationists use as their foundation for preventing anything even resemlbling religion to enter into schools, courthouses or other government institutions. They claim this clause prevents the government from working with any religious organization or allowing religion, for example, onto government school campuses. The problem is it’s a false argument. The only thing this clause prevents the government from doing is establishing an official state religion.
“…or prohibiting the free practice thereof;”
Here’s the clause the Separationists want to ignore. The Federal Government (and by extension, the States and their approved entities such as school districts) cannot prevent an individual from practicing their religion. While not appropos to the case outlined above, Separationist groups have fought against any display of religion, even by private individuals, on government school campuses and in fact any government property. They’ve fought against the display of the cretch in public squares and Valedictorians mentioning God in their speeches. They’ve fought to have monuments commemorating the Ten Commandments removed from courthouses and privately-erected crosses from military cemateries. Separationists have even gone so far as to defend teachers who punish students for listing Jesus Christ as their hero, favorite philosopher or similar. In claiming to fight for First Amendment religious freedom, they actually violate both the letter and spirit of the article.
The whole principle of the First Amendment is not to prevent any unwanted exposure to religious iconography or concepts, either in private or in the public square. Doing so would require that no religion be tolerated or permitted within the borders of the United States. It would prevent any individual or group from publicly displaying their religious symbols. It’s impossible without developing a Soviet-style, atheistic police state, where religion is outlawed; the kind of police state that is anathema to individual liberty. That’s not freedom of religion, that’s separation from religion.
If Americans United for the Separation of Church and State wants to defend the First Amendment, they should probably first do so by actually reading it.
* I refuse to use Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s preferred short-hand, “Americans United” or “AU”, since doing so indicates they are for uniting Americans when in fact all they want to do is force other Americans to think and believe their views.