At the Helm: Separation of church and state

Written by Scott Graves, Pilot staff writer September 19, 2011 02:53 pm

 

Almost every year, a dozen or so members of local churches gather at Brookings public schools, before the first day of class, to pray and seek God’s guidance for the new year. And, every year, several citizens inevitably claim such an activity violates our country’s separation of church and state. 

It’s a claim I’ve heard often whenever there is any type of religious event on public property – be it that of our schools or city, county, state or federal facilities.

It got me thinking.

By allowing a religious-based event on school property, was the school district sponsoring it? 

I don’t think so.

Were public funds being used to support the event? 

I don’t think so.

We’re other students and faculty required or pressured into participating in an event that made them uncomfortable? 

I don’t think so.

What if the prayer event was held at Azalea Park,  Brookings’ crown jewel of city parks. Would that be a violation of separation of church and state? 

I don’t think so. 

Should a church or religious group of any kind be treated differently from a family, business, sports organization or nonprofit that wants to host an event on public property? 

I don’t think so.

Doing some Internet research about this issue, I found the Supreme Court has consistently determined that if a public facility is open to everyone (such as a city park), then to discriminate against any group because of its religious viewpoint is a violation the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The First Amendment clearly states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

In other words, if any religious group wants to host an activity at Azalea Park, they can. If I don’t like it, there are always other parks to visit.

Now some may disagree, but the law seems rather clear. What’s the alternative? Should school districts or cities ban all groups from using public facilities just to prevent a church from holding its function?

I don’t think so.

While government should not sponsor or financially support a particular religion, it should also not oppose religion. People expressing their religious beliefs do no harm to anyone else. As long as they do not annoy others by proselytizing, their freedom of religion should not be inhibited.

The issue seems to be one  of inclusion versus exclusion, or at least tolerance.

Separation of church and state? It seems pretty clear to me. So why is it not so for others?

Perhaps its because we live in a country where one person may view a day of prayer at a public school as unconstitutional, yet doesn’t think twice about swearing on a Bible in a courtroom. Such a person isn’t necessarily being hypocritical, they just might be confused, unsure of where to draw the line. Does a line need to be drawn?

The issue really lies inside each one of us, and our personal beliefs. It’s easy to see why a religious ceremony of any faith could leave some non-religious folks feeling uncomfortable, but does having such feelings warrant tossing aside the U.S. Constitution, or treating one another unfairly?

I don’t think so.

Can we agree that inclusion, tolerance and acceptance should not be declared unconstitutional.

I think so.