The Texas state constitution can no longer be read before a Texas public high school football game. Sound unbelievable? That's just one of the consequences of a terrible United States Supreme Court ruling this week.
In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled Monday that public high schools may not begin football games with a non-denominational "invocation." At issue was a Texas school district policy that allowed students of every public high school to determine, first, whether they wanted an invocation before home football games and, second, who should deliver them. The Court decided that the policy, which had not yet been implemented, violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
Unfortunately for the Court, and probably unbeknownst to its members, Texas' own state constitution begins with a non-denominational invocation. The preamble reads, "Humbly invoking the blessings of Almighty God, the people of the state of Texas, do ordain and establish this Constitution." The Court's decision makes publicly reading the preamble of the Texas constitution at a public school unconstitutional.
Clearly, the Court has the First Amendment wrong. The men who wrote the Constitution believed that religion and morality were indispensable for political prosperity. They thought public officials, especially those in the public schools, could and should cultivate a religious citzenry.
The Supreme Court, however, has interpreted the Establishment Clause to bar the government absolutely from encouraging religious faith. This has forced them to read the Constitution as an anti-religious document and to reach extreme decisions like the one delivered in the Texas case. As a result, the Court is driving religion out of the public schools and betraying the original meaning of the First Amendment.
The Court cited as precedent for its decision a 1992 case, Lee v. Weisman. In Lee, the Court ruled that school officials could not actively arrange for a prayer to be said at public middle school graduations. Monday's decision takes this anti-religious jurisprudence one step further. Now not only are school officials barred from encouraging religion, but students themselves may not choose to pray together publicly, even at non-compulsory events such as football games.
The ramifications of the Court's ruling extend beyond the stadium. To protect their schools from expensive lawsuits, administrators now have an incentive to censor any type of religious expression by students. Better to avoid litigation than to allow the school's valedictorian, for example, mention her faith in God.
In the name of neutrality, the Court has effectively told every public school administer in the country to silence any form of public religious speech. This is anything but neutral.
Not only are the free speech rights of religious students being trampled, the Court has radically misinterpreted the aims of the First Amendment's protection of religious liberty.
The Court says that the Establishment Clause forbids the government from encouraging religious faith. Nonsense. The public recognition of God, in fact, is as old as America itself. The Declaration of Independence begins by proclaiming that we have been endowed with unalienable rights by our "Creator." It ends with an invocation of our "reliance of the protection of Divine Providence."
George Washington, in his presidential farewell address, summed up the Founders' general view of religion in public life. "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity," he wrote, "religion and morality are indispensable supports.... The mere politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and cherish them."
The Founders thought the public recognition of religion vital because religion and morality are, in Washington's words, the "firmest props of the duties of men and citizens." At the same time, the Founders were sensitive to America's religious pluralism. They understood that real religious differences among citizens existed and would further multiply in a land of freedom. They praised religion in general, non-divisive terms.
But the nation's religious diversity did not stop the Founders from recognizing and nurturing religious belief. Just as racial diversity does not prevent us from celebrating our different cultural heritages, religious diversity should not prevent us from expressing our different kinds of faith.
When Washington addressed the new nation for the first time as president, his central theme was thanksgiving to the Almighty. The second paragraph of his inaugural address begins: "[I]t would be peculiarly improper to omit, in this first official act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe.... No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand which conducts the affairs of men, more than the people of the United States."
Washington's words avow the propriety of the public recognition of religion. They offer a model of how we ought to speak about religion in public. If we let the Supreme Court prohibit Texas school children from publicly reading their own state constitution, and if we forbid all American school children from kicking off a football game in the same way that Washington inaugurated his presidency, what kind of nation have we become?