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A Pledge controversy, again

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–“We didn’t think it was fair for the whole school to have to listen to it. It’s almost religious oppression,” Emma Martens told the Associated Press. The senior at Boulder (Colo.) High School was so offended by the daily ritual that she and about 50 other students staged a walk-out.

What was it that so incensed the students in Colorado? It was the utterance of two words. The (allegedly) nefarious phrase “under God” found in the Pledge of Allegiance.

It should come as no surprise that the outraged students charge that being forced to listen to the words “under God” in the Pledge violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. It also should be noted that no student is forced to participate in Boulder High’s daily recitation of The Pledge.

Of course, no one should be too hard on the students for their flawed reasoning and emotional overreaction. I am sure some of their parents have served as models for their behavior. If not, some of our esteemed Supreme Court justices certainly have.

In June 2000, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in a Texas case that public schools cannot allow student-led prayer before high school football games. The ruling came in Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, a case in which a Galveston, Texas area school district allowed student-initiated and led prayer to be broadcast over the P.A. system prior to games.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing the majority opinion, asserted, “Even if we regard every high school student’s decision to attend a home football game as purely voluntary, we are nevertheless persuaded that the delivery of a pregame prayer has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship.”

I don’t really care how much legal training Justice Stevens and his cohorts have, equating “listening” to a prayer with “coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship” is a gross abuse of logic.

If people were forced to recite a prayer or if people were required to bow their heads in a show of respect, the justice might be on to something. But as it stands his conclusion is asinine.

The same is true for students at Boulder High who object to the phrase “under God” in The Pledge. If they were forced to recite the words and punished for refusing, they would have a case for “religious oppression.”

Even if you believe, as Justice Stevens does, that being present when a prayer is being uttered has the effect of “coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship,” how does the activity constitute, in the words of the First Amendment, a “law respecting an establishment of religion”?

Those who object to the prayer might be offended. They might be angered. But there is no way that simply listening to a prayer, one that you may not like, rises to the level of a law that establishes anything.

Again, the same is true for the Boulder High situation. It is clear that a few students object to the phrase “under God.” Some seemingly are outraged that they must hear it once a week. But please tell me what religion is being established by the phrase “under God”? Which specific religion is being forced upon the students?

It seems to me the problem at Boulder and other schools is that misguided adults have led kids to believe that the Constitution provides protection from being offended -– particularly by religious expression — which is utterly false.

“If liberty means anything at all,” observed George Orwell, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” The English writer’s sentiment is a right given to the American people in the form of the First Amendment.

It is clear some people do not want to hear the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and others do not want to hear prayers uttered in public. My advice to them is simple: Don’t listen.
Kelly Boggs, whose column appears each week in Baptist Press, is editor of the Baptist Message, the newspaper of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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  • Kelly Boggs