Before you begin to condemn or condone my statements, before you hoist me on your shoulders or dismiss me entirely as a lost cause, have you considered that there is a border far more crucial to the American way than a border we share with Mexico?
The border that separates church and state is crossed repeatedly by legislatures across the country as well as in the halls of congress and I would argue that crossing that line is is far more dangerous to our country than immigrants.
The Contradiction in Kentucky
In 2017, the Kentucky General Assembly passed Senate Bill 159 that requires Kentucky high school students, beginning in 2018, to pass a 100 question civics test with a score of 60% or better in order to graduate. This test draws questions from the same civics portion of the U.S. Citizenship test. Those taking the civics test to earn citizenship status don't have to answer nearly as many questions but the requirement to pass that test is also 60%.
One problem I have with this bill is that it only requires answering 60% of the questions correctly which seems to me to set the bar pretty low. A solid civics foundation is crucial to students though and right now there are new proposed Social Studies standards under consideration by the Kentucky Department of Education. These proposed standards go way beyond memorization of facts required to pass this test and do so much to increase the rigor and, more importantly, the understanding of civics and how they impact us. I encourage anyone reading to contact KDE and offer your support of these proposed standards.
The other problem I have with this bill is that many of the legislators who were eager to pass it also passed other bills in 2017 and 2018 that make it clear there should a requirement to pass a civics test before one can serve in the legislature.
Senate Bill 17 which was passed in the 2017 General Assembly also known as "The Charlie Brown Bill" was passed to guarantee students' first amendment rights to express their own religious beliefs in school by prohibiting schools from punishing students for wearing religious messages on their clothes and expressing religious or political beliefs in homework, artwork, or speeches. (By the way, the first amendment to the constitution already protects this right. The bill illustrates an ignorance of civics by the sponsor and those who jumped on the bandwagon to herald it's passage.) The bill also allows student organized but school sponsored clubs to discriminate on religious grounds and it also creates a new chapter of KRS 158 to "allow teaching about religion with the use of the Bible or other scripture, but without providing religious instruction for secular study".
House Bill 128, also passed in the 2017 General Assembly allows Kentucky public schools to teach courses on "Bible Literacy". The bill, once signed into law, directed the Kentucky Department of Education to adopt policy to let school districts begin teaching these courses as early as the 2018/2019 school year. HB 128 came after SB 17 but uses some of the same language in terms of how a Bible Literacy course should be taught in a way that doesn't provide religious instruction.
So both bills provide an opportunity to teach the Bible from a historical and literary perspective and the courses are designed as electives. What's the big deal? These courses are electives, nobody is being forced to take them right?
I had several concerns when it came time for my school district to adopt the policies KDE handed down to districts across the state. I'll come back to my concerns but first, let's have a little lesson in civics.
No, We Aren't a Christian NationI'm often surprised by how many people I run into that believe we are a Christian Nation and that our government was founded on Christian principles. Well, if you don't have time to read the entire Constitution, take a minute to do an internet search and find a copy and try a ctrl+F function to search the document for any references to 'God', 'Christian', 'Jesus', 'Bible', or anything else you want to search. You won't find them. You will find two references to the word religion however, both in the First Amendment.
Amendment 1 - Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression. Ratified 12/15/1791. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
You might also be interested to note that the words "Under God" didn't appear in the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954 and that the motto "In God We Trust" wasn't officially adopted until 1956. The previous motto goes back to 1782, before Kentucky was even a state; E pluribus unum or Out of Many One. This is particularly pertinent as HB 45 is currently in committee in the 2019 General Assembly which is a bill that would require all Kentucky elementary and secondary schools to prominently display our national motto. I wonder which one they mean? I digress....
Twenty-something years ago I was sitting in an AP Government class in Shelby County High School when the assignment was given to pick from a list of scenarios that related to the Bill of Rights and argue for or against the case in our particular scenario. I chose a case in which a church had suffered a fire and the congregation was seeking to use a public elementary school to hold their services while the church was repaired.
On the surface, this seemed like an easy case to argue for the congregation. The public school is a public building, supported by public dollars, why shouldn't taxpayers be able to use the school building? When I started to piece my argument together I found that I kept struggling with the phrase "Congress shall make no law respecting religion". I mean, letting the church use the building wasn't an act of Congress, right? There wasn't a law passed allowing the church to use the school building, right?
On the other hand, here was an instance of a church asking to use the benefits of state funding for the specific purpose of worship. Would this not be in a small way state sponsorship of a particular religion?
In the scenario, the denomination of the church was not identified but in Shelby County one would likely assume it was a Christian denomination. What if it wasn't though? For all I knew, it could have been a Jewish Synagogue that needed a building to use.....or a Mosque?
Now the question became what would the response be if multiple various denominations wanted to use school buildings for their worship? Would the community support Christian use but not use by Muslims? What would be the precedent or statute to govern that?
Well, the first amendment governs that. If government can sponsor one denomination then it must make that sponsorship available to all. But what constitutes a religion or a denomination of of religion? Are there legitimate religions that could take advantage of use of a government building for worship and illegitimate religions that would be prohibited? Who determines which religions are legitimate and which are not? Do you want the government to be the body that determines what constitutes a religion? Maybe some of you do but what happens if Christianity becomes a minority denomination in the United States at some point in the future? What if a future majority denomination decided Christianity was not a legitimate religion?
Here is where a second portion of the First Amendment becomes especially relevant, "or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". The First Amendment not only prohibits government support of any religious party, it also prohibits government from impeding the free exercise of any religious party's worship. Much in the same way the Second Amendment prohibits the government from infringing on the right of the people to keep and bear arms that are necessary to the security of the state.
The Slippery Slope
As I said before, I have issues with the Charlie Brown Bill and the Bible Literacy Bill. The largest issue I have is that they both specifically reference the Bible as the primary text for these classes. Any other text is an afterthought and seems to be mostly a poorly thought out way to stave off legal challenges...and it is poorly thought out. Even though any course studying the Bible as literature or history in public schools must be taught in a secular manner and would only be elective courses there is still the issue of enforcement of the 'secular manner' in which it is taught.
Do you want the government to begin determining what constitutes a secular dissemination of the Bible and what constitutes a religious dissemination of the Bible?
What about other students in the school who may be Jewish, or Hindu, or Muslim, who are unable to take an elective course that gives them credit toward graduation in which they study their religious text? Of course the bills do throw in the phrase 'or other scripture' as a way around that but who determines what that other scripture can and can't be? Are you ok with the Torah or Quran or the Satanic Bible being taught from a historic or literary text?
I would guess that a lot of people are terrified of these prospects but when legislatures cross the border between church and state, this scenario becomes entirely possible unless a strong judiciary can act to strike down the constitutionality of bills like SB 17 and HB 128.
Christianity as a Minority?
The idea of Christianity being in the minority seems unlikely in the near future though the dominance it once enjoyed as the majority religion in the United States is slipping. According to studies reported through the Pew Research Center, the number of Americans who consider themselves "religiously unaffiliated" grew from 35.6 million in 2007 to 55.8 million in 2014. The number of Americans who consider themselves as Christians declined from 178.1 million to 172.8 million over the same period. The share of Americans known as 'nones' or not religiously affiliated now make up anywhere from 19% to 28% depending on the region of the U.S. sampled. Populations affiliated with religions other than Christianity grew from 4.7% in 2007 to 5.9% in 2014.
In some parts of the country it is estimated that the combined population of people identifying with religious affiliations other than Christianity make up as much as 42% of the population. In the year 2000 Kentucky had roughly 2.1 million Christians but it also had about 11,000 Jews and 4,000 Muslims. The most recent data i came across suggests that Christians only make up about 76% of Kentucky's population while religions other than Christianity make up about 2% and the the religiously unaffiliated including the nones, Atheists, and Agnostics make up 22%.
Even if Christians are the majority in Kentucky and will likely stay that way for years, even generations to come, it is important to consider that the First Amendment protects the religious freedom of those in the majority as well as those in the minority. Our legislators in Kentucky and in Washington continue willingly or maybe just ignorantly cross the border between church and state and erode the intent of our founding principles.....especially the principles that guarantee a freedom to express our religious beliefs and protection from those who would force theirs upon us.
Separation of Church and State
Religion plays a very important part in in many peoples' lives and it means different things to different people. When we stand by watching legislation that includes religious motivations make it's way into our schools we cross a dangerous line. It only takes a majority in a legislative body to pass a law and our perspective depends on whether we are in the majority or not. Asking students to pass a civics test when there is no similar stipulation placed on legislators leads to bills and potential laws that could bring compulsory or discriminatory religious practices into our schools and our society that are sponsored by government.
It is up to us to understand the foundations of our government because as someone who has served in public office, campaigned for office, and met many elected officials, I can honestly say that an understanding of policy and civics is not a requirement to govern. What is popular tends to win the day and the Constitution can protect us from ourselves but only if the laws are challenged in the courts. An unconstitutional concept can remain the law of the land for years waiting for the right opportunity to bring a challenge.
This separation of religion from our government is not about persecution, nor is my article. This is about legislators and officials that ignore the fact that we are made up of many faiths and that the Constitution respects none of them over any other. When bills like HB 128 are passed or when bills like House Bill 427 in Mississippi that would make reciting the 10 Commandments in public schools compulsory we are ignoring the protections of the Constitution and perpetrating the very transgressions that led our ancestors to flee Europe.
The difference between a bill like HB 427 in Mississippi requiring students to recite the 10 Commandments each morning and a bill requiring students to face Mecca each day and pray is who is in the majority. This shouldn't shouldn't scare you because the First Amendment should protect us all from either scenario.....eventually.
Though I was raised as a Baptist, I am now an atheist and have been for about 10 years. The term atheist conjures all kinds of negative connotations but put simply it means I am not a theist in the same way an asymmetrical shape is not symmetrical. Atheism is to religion what off is to a television channel. If you know me well and know the roles I've played as a father, a public servant, a community member, and as a person, you'll likely be surprised that I don't have religion in my life or a belief in any kind of higher power and still lead my life in a very moral way in service to others. If you don't know me well you may very well dismiss me completely and shun me altogether. Either way, as someone in this particular and heavily stigmatized minority I feel a special respect for the protections in the Constitution. In countries that don't have those protections, those who don't believe in the majority religion are subject to blasphemy laws and other persecutions.
The wall between church and state is more crucial to our way of life than any wall along a border with another country. A wall between church and state isn't an attack on Christianity or any other denomination, it is a a means to protect Christianity as well as other religions or lack of. Perhaps the litmus test we should use when it comes to a policy regarding religion entering the political fray is to ask, would this law or policy be accepted if it were framed within a religion other than your own in mind? Would your free exercise need the protection of the First Amendment at that point?