Russell Turpin: ‘You quote J. R. Pitts as writing, ‘We won WWII when children could pray in schools. We lost Vietnam when they couldn’t.’ You write, ‘Religion should be private.’

‘And you’re both wrong. No one — not the ACLU, not the most ardent atheist — is trying to kick religion out of the public square. Jerry Falwell has every right to blast his uninformed opinions over the airwaves. The notion that the government is trying to restrict religion to the home and church is simply false. It is a myth that children are not allowed to pray at school. They may pray at recess. They may pray with schoolmates over lunch. They may pray between classes. And they may pray silently when the teacher hands out a test. The Supreme Court decrees only that the SCHOOL must not sanction those prayers. And that is a very different issue from students praying. The goal is NOT to silence the public voices of the religious, but rather to keep the government, and its schools, from sanctioning religion.

‘This distinction is very important. It is crucial to understanding the court decisions. And the religious right is trying to deceive the public about the issue. Thus, we hear all the time that children are not allowed to pray in school. That’s false. The children ARE allowed to pray, though they can’t turn that prayer into a school activity or disrupt school activities with it. It is the public school that is restrained. And that’s how it should be.’

☞ Good point. Not that everyone agrees about the separation of church and state. Did you see yesterday’s New York Times? Sean Wilentz has an op-ed in which he quotes Justice Scalia’s January speech to the University of Chicago Divinity School. (The full speech appeared in the May issue of First Things.) The op-ed is entitled, From Justice Scalia, a Chilling Vision of Religion’s Authority in America. The point is made that Justice Scalia is not comfortable with the way democracy tends to take God out of government. Argues Justice Scalia (in his private capacity, not speaking as a Justice), ‘The reaction of people of faith to this tendency of democracy to obscure the divine authority behind government should not be resignation to it, but the resolution to combat it as effectively as possible.’ Fight the separation of church and state, insofar as you can.

This is instructive, because (a) Justice Clarence Thomas almost always votes with Justice Scalia (and anointed John Ashcroft with oil upon his appointment as Attorney General); and (b) George W. Bush, when he was running for the presidency, specifically cited Scalia and Thomas – and only those two – as Justices he particularly admired.

Those who agree with John Ashcroft’s statement at Bob Jones University that ‘we have no king but Jesus’ – or who take heart when they hear House Majority Whip Tom DeLay saying that God is using him to promote “a biblical worldview” in American politics – or who cheered last month’s official pronouncement by the Texas Republican Party that America is a Christian nation founded in Biblical principles – will be pleased to know that Justice Scalia feels as he does.

Those who worry that religious zeal has led to much of the bloodshed and oppression of human history – or who note that the founders were not deeply religious – may be less enthusiastic.


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