Celebrate our nation’s birth by studying our founding documents

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July 23, 2008


This month we celebrate the birth of our country. I have a one question quiz for you today: What are the rights/freedoms enumerated in the First Amendment? You will find the answer later in this column.

       The First Amendment Center conducts a survey every year on the people’s knowledge of the First Amendment. They had some astounding results in last year’s survey. For example, Nearly two-thirds say our nation’s founders intended the United States to be a ‘Christian nation’. There is no mention of Christianity in the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution.

       Another discovery of the survey is that only a little more than half the respondents believe that freedom of religion applies to all religions. The First Amendment is very broad and does not limit the freedom of religion in any way.

       58% of respondents favored teacher led prayers in public schools. As a former public school teacher I have thought about prayer in school for a long time and wondered what people thought about it so I conducted a very unscientific opinion poll. Iasked this question, “If you were a teacher in a public classroom, what prayer would you use in such a situation?”

       A Muslim man wrote “If the Prayer refers to the Almighty as "GOD", I can tell you that Muslims will be supportive of such prayers.”  A Hindu woman wrote “I think prayer to a higher force is a wonderful thing for children to learn. It teaches them that somebody other than a human must have created nature, and the oceans, and the beautiful creatures that share the Earth with us. It also teaches us to respect the different ways people pray to this higher force.” Even though this is a general comment that could seemingly be applied universally, it would not meet the requirements of the Muslim.

       A Jewish man wrote “I guess the easiest way would be to use a completely non-denominational prayer. He gave an example but then went on to say that he would have to take into account the composition of the class, the circumstances of the prayer, and the law orpolicy that allowed or required the prayer.

       An atheist wrote emphatically that prayer is not allowed in school as it would be equivalent to establishing a religion, contrary to the First Amendment. He did go on to say however that “A time of silence, in which children and teacher are free to think whatever they wish, is acceptable to me.” Interestingly enough this is exactly what they do in Oklahoma. My teacher friend there wrote “Our state mandates one minute of silence at the beginning of every school day. Some children appear to pray, some work on morning seatwork or homework, read, or attempt to visit. I play supervisor. Students are excused for religious practice reasons.”

       Another person who has none of the above religious affiliations suggested a humanist prayer that says, “We give thanks for the freedom to think, and to express our thoughts.”  While that phrase might be acceptable to all of the above, the prayer also included thanks for “the freedom to reject inspired books filled with cruelty” that I doubt would satisfy the needs of any of the above other than perhaps the atheist.

       My point in writing this is very simple. While those of us who profess religious belief might think it is a good thing to have prayer in the public school, very practical questions arise: whose prayer? which prayer? whose God? Can God be addressed as Higher Force? Creator? Trinity?

       This whole discussion comes under one of the freedoms/rights enumerated in the First Amendment which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or

prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or

of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition

the Government for a redress of grievances.”

       How many of these could you name? A majority of the respondents in the survey conducted by the First Amendment Center could name only one of them. Only three percent could name all five. How well did you do? Perhaps it is time to find a copy of the Constitution and read it. There might be other surprises there. Let’s be more informed about the foundational documents of our country so we can make this an even better place to live and pursue happiness.