The Greece v Galloway case argued before the US Supreme Court on Wednesday has once again brought to the fore the question of prayer in official government-sponsored settings. Two recent events highlight the fact that many people do not understand that the constitutional protections of freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion does not give everybody carte blanche to impose their religious and political views on others. The limits are especially strong when the ‘others’ are children in a captive environment where the sense of coercion is palpable.
In the first case, a Christian pastor who also worked as a bus driver was fired after he ignored orders to stop leading prayers for the students riding his bus. He is, of course, complaining that his freedom of speech rights have been violated.
Nathaniel prayed during the seven-minute ride to school after the last child got on board.
“We start out with a song,” he said. “Then each person will pray if they want to pray. If they don’t want to pray, they don’t have to pray. Then I will pray and ask them if they want to join me in prayer. Just give them something constructive and positive to go to school with.”
Nathaniel said that he’s a pastor at the Elite Church of the First Born and for Grace Missionary Baptist Church, both in Minneapolis, and that he prayed on the route all last year, as well.
Nathaniel said that he had driven school buses in Wisconsin and Georgia before coming to Minnesota and that he had always prayed with the kids.
“We got to get Christians to be able to be Christians and not have to be closet Christians,” he said. “You have something good, you are going to share it with somebody.”
Meanwhile, a Florida fourth-grade teacher was suspended after she told her students that they had to pledge allegiance to the flag or go back to their home country. One boy who was a Jehovah’s Witness, would stand silently, neither saying the pledge nor putting his hand on his heart.
As the students recited, teacher Anne Daigle-McDonald took the boy’s wrist and placed his hand over his heart. He protested, pulling his arm down and reminding her he was a Jehovah’s Witness.
“You are an American, and you are supposed to salute the flag,” Daigle-McDonald said, according to a statement the boy gave to a school administrator.
The next day, Daigle-McDonald again placed the boy’s hand over his heart.
She then addressed the class.
“In my classroom, everyone will do the pledge; no religion says that you can’t do the pledge,” several students told a school administrator, according to a report. “If you can’t put your hand on your heart, then you need to move out of the country.”
In 1943, the US Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that it was unconstitutional to force students to salute the flag and pledge allegiance. Note that this was even before the controversial phrase ‘under God’ was added to the pledge in 1954. Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote in his majority opinion:
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.
The bus driver and teacher don’t seem to realize that they are acting as representatives of the government when they perform their official functions as public sector employees and hence they are not acting as private citizens and do not have the same freedoms. The bus driver can share his ‘good news’ with people anywhere other than when he is working as an employee of a government agency and the teacher cannot force the students to either say the pledge or how to say it. Their freedom of action is necessarily limited by the freedom of others, and the courts are especially protective of the right of children to not be indoctrinated by people in positions of authority over them.
You would think that this would not be that hard to understand. But for people who are so steeped in the belief that they are right and that everyone else should think like them, this never seems to sink in.