It Could Happen to You

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Whether or not all of us have a religion, we all have some sort of belief system and know others who do as well—some who are very nonchalant and others who are very zealous. Whatever the case may be, for all people, beliefs are part of what make them who they are.

Delving even more deeply, we often seek to express ourselves through our beliefs, whether it’s in action or inaction, a statue, or quotes from a sacred text or from a prominent person on the subject matter. We see others putting forth those views, privately and publically. Whether or not we agree with them, all agree that they have the liberty to do so, be it by encouraging others to participate or simply having a small something with them or where they are, as an expression of what they believe and ultimately as something that represents a part of them.

This was not the case for science teacher Joelle Silver, who teaches at the high school level in western New York.

The controversy erupted around a quote from former President Ronald Reagan and a wall prayer box decorated with Bible quotes. The box is a part of a Bible club at the school, which Silver is an advisor to and sponsor of. The box was there so that if students chose to put in a prayer request, the club would have those requests for when they met later on.

The Reagan quote read, “If we ever forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a Nation gone under.”

Silver received an eight page letter from the superintendent, saying that the prayer was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, going on to say that “your rights to free speech and expression are not as broad as if you were simply a private citizen.” Silver was forced to remove anything that had a religious reference in the classroom and was even told, “Under no circumstances should you participate in the club’s meetings or activities,” and was ordered to never discuss religion during school hours, even if a member of the Bible club had a question about Christianity.

After her classroom was investigated and anything to do with Christianity was removed, Silver filed a lawsuit against the school district for allegedly violating her civil rights.

Whether you agree with her beliefs is not the point; the point is whether she has the right to participate in those activities, which were not forced upon students. Would you want this to happen to a Muslim group? An atheist group? What about a gay rights group? The last one is not a religious activity, mind you; however, in context, it is part of a belief and a practice and, though different from a religion, carries similar qualities in the nature of its expressions.

Also, if Silver, a teacher, would be in violation of the First Amendment, wouldn’t President Reagan be as well? She’s a teacher at a school, but he’s the president, who represents the nation. Wouldn’t every president be in violation since they all swear in on the Bible or since they have promoted national days of prayer since George Washington?

I think the real issue here is government infringement of rights, considering that separation of church and state originated for the very prevention of such an act. Considering that the Supreme Court has legally listed secular humanism and atheism as religions, the superintendent would be in violation of enforcing such beliefs on the teacher and the Bible club, who were only presenting the prayer box and quotes as an option for students, not as something they had to do.

What we must remember is that if this kind of behavior is allowed to continue, it can be used as a double-edged sword. If school districts are allowed to violate individuals’ rights as such, they could in the future turn to persecution of other groups as well, including the very people who are against having religious icons in the classroom.

If only the government could focus on a separation of debt and state, rather than get distracted by an incorrect concept of separation of church and state, there would be less separation of jobs and people.