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FIRST-PERSON: Religious freedom doesn’t fold ‘like a cheap lawn chair’

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP) — It seems it is once again time for a refresher course on the application of the First Amendment to life in the United States.

A variety of news reports have indicated that the Arkansas State football team has been instructed by the university’s legal counsel to remove small cross decals on the back of the team’s helmets. The Christian symbol included the initials of a former player and equipment manager who had died in the past year. Both men were Christians. The players initiated the cross decals with the men’s initials and voluntarily agreed to display them, according to reports.

On Sept. 6 Arkansas State played the University of Tennessee. An attorney in Jonesboro, Ark., apparently saw the televised game, noticed the tiny decals and complained, Fox News reported on its website. Louis Nisenbaum wrote to the university and asserted, “That [the cross decals] is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause as a state endorsement of the Christian religious,” according to Fox News.

Arkansas State’s legal counsel, fearing a law suit, folded up like a cheap lawn chair and said the crosses must either be removed or altered to look like plus signs. The team chose to remove the crosses.

Let’s direct Mr. Nisenbaum to the full text of First Amendment, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech….” Put simply, the phrase makes it clear that the government will not tell citizens that they “must” or that they “can’t” when it comes to the practice of religion in America.

It really does not take a constitutional scholar to understand the simple, straightforward wording established by our nation’s founders.

Please tell me how a small cross decal on the back of a football helmet constitutes a law that says you “must” follow a religious practice. How does a symbol memorializing two men constitute a statute establishing a particular religion?

The encroachment on religious expression is not limited to football helmets.

According to a myriad of reports a Tennessee high school student was suspended for saying the phrase “Bless you” in response to another student’s sneeze. The teacher had previously banned the phrase.

An assistant professor of chemistry at the College of Coastal Georgia reportedly has banned students from saying “bless you” when a classmate sneezes during lecture. Students face 1 percent deductions from their final grade for every time they use the phrase.

There are a variety of references for the origin of the phrase “Bless you,” which is a shortened version of “God bless you,” in connection to a person sneezing. Each version has the phrase somehow associated with Christianity. In today’s vernacular, however, “Bless you” is nothing more than a polite response to a sometimes-awkward social event.

It is worth noting the government teachers in question did not ban the ever popular word “Gesundheit,” which is German for “health,” in their classes. The only phrase that was deemed verboten in both situations has a distinctly Christian origin.

Considering the entire context of the First Amendment, it is easy to see that the founders linked speech with religious expression. One of the primary ways a person conveys his or her religion is by communicating through various means. Hence, the Bill of Rights forbids the “abridging of the freedom of speech.”

It seems clear the First Amendment not only prohibits the government from telling a citizen he or she “can’t” or “must” believe a certain way, but it also restricts the government from interfering with a person’s ability to communicate his or her faith or beliefs.

Some people either have a reading comprehension problem or they are deliberately contorting the intent of our founding fathers in an effort to mute the influence of Christian expression in the public square. It would seem that when a government teacher bans students from respectfully expressing a phrase with a Christian origin, he or she is subtly creating an environment hostile to a particular faith.

Our founding fathers never meant to regulate people from expressing their faith in meaningful and even polite ways whether on a college football helmet or in a government classroom.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press, director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention’s office of public affairs, and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Kelly Boggs