Too often, it becomes painfully obvious that we Americans burden the legacies of the men who founded our Nation with powers of knowledge and reason unattainable as a result of the forever-present fickleness of the human condition.
In arguments of modern political and social import, we harken back to the simply worded — and, therefore, easily victimized by agenda-driven interpretation — Bill of Rights. We argue over whether the Nation’s Constitution is one of concrete command or an always-beating heart, swayable by the demands of modernity. And we rely on interpretation of the country’s supreme law by a group of noble judges who are granted full-faith public trust — even if their decisions are still subject to disagreement.
This is a system that, by the wisdom of the Founders, has kept this great Nation unified — if only by a thread at times — through innumerable disagreements of public sensibility.
A battle being waged between the majority population and an outsider-aided minority group in the modest town of Cullman, Ala., seated in the Nation’s Bible Belt, exemplifies the very type of disagreement that — despite endless debate, historical study and emotional outburst — will never be publicly settled. It involves that pesky tendency of Americans, for faith or due to the lack thereof, to argue over the properness of interchanging the prepositions “of” and “from” in using abbreviated language to narrate the portion of the Nation’s 1st Amendment regarding matters of religion.
This happens despite the fact that the portion of the Amendment addressing religious matters reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” And it really should leave no room for the irreverence of truncation that allows us to quarrel over the fair use of “freedom of” or “freedom from” religion. But it seems that public disagreement is a characteristic of the American condition more ingrained than even faith and freedom, and no one ever seems to attempt to argue in favor of substituting “from” for “of” in the phrase “freedom of speech.” So on goes the debate.
In Cullman, Billy Coleman, the elected superintendent of the county’s school system, recently posted announcements to a system-controlled Facebook account and calendar announcing a Saturday event giving students, faculty and the community to opportunity to voluntarily gather on county school campuses for prayer to kick off the school year.
Because Coleman was obviously acting in his official capacity as a school official in posting the event (otherwise he would have not had access to the system), it’s easily arguable that he violated Department of Education guidelines that resulted from Supreme Court rulings and that prohibit school officials from promoting prayer.
That Cullman is a heavily religious community and that participation in the event is voluntary and scheduled to take place outside of regular school hours were of no consequence to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). Despite being headquartered hundreds of miles away in Wisconsin, the organization caught wind of Coleman’s actions and promptly sent him a cease and desist letter demanding that he cancel the event it labeled an “especially egregious violation” of the separation of church and state.
But Coleman was certainly not interested in backing down, even facing a lawsuit from the group.
“We’re not going to cancel it. We’re not praying for our schools to make a point. We’re praying for our schools because we want to thank God for the blessings he gives us, and pray for our students and communities,” he told The Cullman Times. “I think the problem is they assume our school system is sponsoring it, and it is not. It’s called the Cullman County Schools Prayer Caravan because it goes to all the county schools. We just want to give folks the voluntary opportunity to come out and pray on a Saturday.”
In a bid to appease the group, the superintendent promptly removed the announcements posted online; and the local board of education issued a resolution officially denying any system involvement in its organization.
But the Freedom From Religion Foundation remained unsatisfied. In an interview with Personal Liberty, FFRF attorney Andrew Seidel explained why.
“Coleman was acting as a school official when he posted the announcements of the prayer meeting,” Seidel claimed. “And simply removing the announcements isn’t enough to fix the problem; canceling the event in his official capacity is the only way to cure it.”
Seidel explained that his group’s mission is to act as an advocate for Americans who consider themselves non-theists or secularists and to uphold the Constitutional separation of church and state. The attorney said that FFRC didn’t go looking for a fight with the Cullman County system, but was contacted by members of the local community who complained of the event and other — unverifiable by nature — religious intrusions in that public school system.
“We’ve had reports of prayers over intercom in schools in the district, religious speeches and other complaints,” Seidel said.
When asked for a specific number of complaints, the attorney said more than 10.
Seidel went on to explain that while those who complain about religious activity in schools may be a minority in Cullman, his organization doesn’t consider majority opinion a justification for abuses of the Constitution. What’s worse, he said, is that those people in the minority are sometimes subjected to death threats and attacks from angry religious believers. He backed his assertion citing the story of Jessica Ahlquist, a 16-year-old Rhode Island student who led a charge — and eventually successfully sued — to have a prayer banner removed from her public school auditorium. She was eventually subjected to such abuse from her peers and other community members, Seidel said, that she required a police escort at school.
Despite its protest, Seidel said his organization is under no illusion that Coleman will back down. And FFRC is prepared to sue the school system, confident that legal precedent is on its side.
Asked whether it seemed at all irrational to fight an uphill battle in the name of secularism in a very religious community, Seidel said simply, “They may have God on their side, but we have the Constitution on ours.”
Coleman and his legal advisers have made numerous statements to local media regarding the issue, and they appear comfortably certain that they have taken the correct steps to remedy any Constitutional or legal issues stemming from the event.
Taking a day of leave to speak freely, the superintendent delivered an impassioned speech this week, complete with an attempt to answer the question of where our Nation’s Founders would fall on the issue.
The conclusion of Coleman’s speech was recorded by The Cullman Times as follows:
There has been a lot of debate on what was inside the heads of our founding fathers when this country was established. Why did they write what they wrote? What was the meaning of the First Amendment and public free exercise of religious belief? There is a host of documentation as to their original intent, including that found in the 1789 Northwest Ordinance, adopted after the First Amendment was ratified: ‘Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.’ Thus, we know that the first public schools were established to teach children how to read the Bible and the New England Primer, which was one of the first textbooks in America and certainly made reference to the Bible. Now we have come to this, an activist organization located halfway across the country attempting to eliminate private expressions of faith and worship by public school officials and employees acting on their private time and in their private capacity as citizens of Cullman County. We strongly feel this goes well beyond what even modern Supreme Court decisions require, regarding the scope of the First Amendment.
In conclusion, I want to thank all those who have offered so much support for our Prayer Caravan and for the citizens of Cullman County’s decision to take a stand. I would like to finally close with the first and last lines of the first prayer given at the Continental Congress on September 7, 1774.
‘O Lord our Heavenly Father, high and mighty King of kings,
and Lord of lords, who dost from thy throne behold all the
dwellers on earth and reignest with power supreme and
uncontrolled over all the Kingdoms, Empires and Governments; look down in mercy, we beseech Thee, on these our American States, who have fled to Thee form the rod of the oppressor and thrown themselves on Thy gracious protection, desiring to be henceforth dependent only on Thee…
All this we ask in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Thy Son and our Savior. Amen’
God bless you all, and God bless America.
Of course, it’s no surprise that Seidel interprets the Founders’ proposed relationship between religion and public institutions in the United States a little differently.
He prefers quotes attributed to James Madison, such as that which was written in a letter to Edward Livingston: “Religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”
And Seidel described Thomas Jefferson’s infamous taking of a razor to the Bible to remove supernatural anecdotes from its moral message as a wonderful and telling act that gives insight to the Founder’s religious mindset.
While we probably shouldn’t expect Seidel and Coleman to sit down over a cup of coffee and come to an agreement about the threshold of separation of church and state violations anytime soon, they certainly offer a valuable lesson to the rest of us. We’ll never know exactly how the men who founded the Nation expected its modern citizens to exercise the freedoms they sought to guarantee, nor will we know exactly where they sought to limit the power of government in every scenario.
But it seems pretty plausible that if Jefferson and Madison were here today and they suffered the opportunity to read an account of the argument Coleman and Seidel are having, they’d shake their heads in disapproval, knowing that this is how some Americans now spend the spare time not constrained by the sort of hardships the founding generations faced.