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Wilson County Schools Are Well Worth a Mass

Will Matthews,
ACLU of Northern California
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December 16, 2007

In an op-ed published in The New York Times last week, Roger Cohen relates the insight of a former French king who, surveying the destruction that rained down upon 16th-century Europe as a result of pre-Enlightenment religious fervor, said, “Paris is well worth a Mass.”

Folks in Wilson County, Tennessee would be wise to heed this monarch’s words.

Check out the chatter tagged to Wednesday’s front-page story about the ACLU of Tennessee’s lawsuit challenging the ongoing practice by Wilson County Schools’ officials of promoting and endorsing specific religious beliefs. While the chatter certainly pales in comparison to the smoldering cathedrals that dotted the European landscape in the wake of Reformation-era violence, the culture war being played out on The Tennessean‘s website is indicative of the very same ill: religion and the state becoming too enmeshed with each other.

In this particular case, there are teachers who are leading prayer and religious song during class time.

And a group of self-named “Praying Parents” who pray together on campus as students arrive for the school day and then deliver personalized notes inside classrooms informing individual students and teachers that they have been prayed for.

And so now, instead of being focused on the altruistic task of improving public education, some folks in Wilson County are insisting on enlisting public schools to promote their particular religious views. They simply don’t understand why public school officials – rather than individual parents and families – are barred from deciding what sort of religious education the children of Wilson County receive.

The answer is simple: the Constitution of the United States says they can’t – and with good reason. Religious freedom is alive and well in America precisely because the government – and especially our public schools – don’t take sides in matters of faith.

Our friends at the Alliance Defense Fund – one of a slew of fundamentalist Christian law firms that have popped up in the past couple of decades who purport to defend religious freedom but who in actuality promote freedom for one small niche of Christians at the expense of all other religious and non-religious Americans – will scream until they’re hoarse that if the ACLU wins its lawsuit in Tennessee that it will have a chilling and precedent-setting effect on the rights of Christians to freely express their religious beliefs.

But all they are really doing is fueling the fire of the culture wars they concoct, feed upon and use to arouse good folks like those who have chimed in on the Tennessean’s website. There in fact will be little precedent set by an ACLU victory. Indeed, the Constitutional principles that are at stake in this case have been clearly communicated in the Bill of Rights for over 200 years: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

By requiring that teachers not promote explicitly religious beliefs in public school classrooms and barring schools from giving certain individuals and faiths preferential use of school resources, the ACLU will in no way be limiting people’s constitutional right to be religious. Instead, by ensuring that the government stays out of deciding which religions to promote, the ACLU will be making sure that religious liberty continues to be a hallmark of our democracy.

And instead of being a battle field for wars rooted in religious fervor, Wilson County Schools can once again resume the essential task of providing a quality public education to its students.

Echoing the words of the king from a generation long since passed, Cohen argued in his New York Times op-ed that Washington is well worth a Mass. So too are the Wilson County Schools.

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