Good news and bad news

28 Sep

Results from a recent survey are out, and they contain some good news and not so good news. The survey has nothing to do with politics in this election season. Rather, it has to do with knowledge of religion in the U.S.

What I found encouraging is that 89% of the people surveyed know that public school teachers cannot lead their students in prayer. Still encouraging, though less so, is that 68% of the people surveyed know that the U.S. Constitution says the government cannot establish a religion nor can it interfere with one’s religious beliefs. It is discouraging, though, that less than a third know that public school teachers can read from a religious work such as the Koran or the Bible as examples of literature or teach a class on comparative religions.

I have long felt that the public largely misunderstands what the First Amendment allows and doesn’t allow. For example, I encountered a group of college students who thought that the law would not permit a public display of the Ten Commandments. They did not realize that a public display of the Commandments on private land is perfectly legal, while the same display on public land has constitutional problems. People often think, incorrectly, that public school students cannot pray in school. Nothing prevents a student from saying a silent prayer before lunch or before a difficult exam.

Often, I find myself thinking cynically that these sorts of misunderstandings are fostered by certain groups as a way of gathering supporters and donations. There are apocryphal stories of students who are told not to wear a watch with the face of Jesus on it, but further digging reveals the student was told to leave the watch home because she kept setting off the musical alarm and disrupting the class. If a student is being told to leave a watch at home solely because it is a religious watch, then I’ll be the first to represent her against the school.

The misinformation in this nation about church and state is frustrating, but we cannot lose hope. Religion flourishes in the U.S. because of our First Amendment, not in spite of it. As long as we can keep our government out of religions–and our religions out of government–we will continue to do quite nicely (on that part of our culture, anyway). If we can cut down on the misinformation, that would be a big help.

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