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Nov 08 2013

When one freedom collides with another

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.

7 comments

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  1. 1
    Matt G

    Religious privilege is so strong in this country. I hope the Supreme Court justices are reminded of the Lemon Test during testimony.

  2. 2
    Crimson Clupeidae

    I don’t see these particular cases as competing freedoms. These are specific, rather narrowly defined instances where individuals are explicitly not allowed to use their positions as government employees to coerce others into sharing their religion. They already have their religious freedom in the rest of their life, but they can’t be content with that and try to force it on others. Note that here, they are even more egregious, as they are trying to force it on young children who they think will not resist.

  3. 3
    Chiroptera

    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.

    Notice also that this was in the middle of WWII, when I would have expected knee-jerk, hysterical support of patriotic rituals.

    I mean, when people in the middle of a major war that was killing lots of citizens and sucking up massive amounts of resources could figure out that mandatory displays of patriotism is wrong, what excuse do we have?

  4. 4
    maddog1129

    @ Matt G #1

    Religious privilege is so strong in this country. I hope the Supreme Court justices are reminded of the Lemon Test during testimony.

    Small nitpick: what happens at the Supreme Court is oral argument, not testimony. Testimony is given by witnesses at the trial court level, who are sworn (or may affirm) to tell the truth under questioning. Generally, no testimony is taken in appellate proceedings, which review the record made in the trial court.

  5. 5
    jaxkayaker

    “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.”

    Or they do realize and are disingenuously claiming not to, because Christian privilege.

    One of my math teachers read to us from the Bible. He claimed the assistant principal gave him the go-ahead, as long as he didn’t “teach” from the Bible.

    One of my high school classmates, who was a Jehovah’s witness, was sent to the office by a substitute instructor (who went to my church) for refusing to stand during the pledge. The office sent the student back to class without punishment, because they apparently knew the law.

  6. 6
    thewhollynone

    Retired public school teacher here, and from the South, so you can imagine how many times I have had to stand people down about this kind of foolishness. One temporary principal, clueless, asked me to give the “invocation” at a school assembly, and was astounded when she received a fifteen minute lecture from me about why any invocation of magical spirits was inappropriate. Of course, we had a strong teachers’ union and I had tenure. I’m afraid those days are gone now.

    I have no idea what the SCOTUS will decide in the Greece case, but given five practicing Roman Catholic males on the court, I am not hopeful that the decision will be to our liking. I would enjoy being pleasantly surprised.

  7. 7
    lanir

    The basic issue the Christians in the examples are all willfully trying not to see is that they’re specifically doing their best to find people who can’t really avoid the message or don’t appear able to fight back if it’s thrown in their faces. Like any predator they target the young, the old, the sick. It’s a deliberate choice although it’s defended now as simply customary.

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