Valedictorian's Rights Were Trampled

Published 4:30 pm Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Editor, The Herald:

I greatly enjoyed the recent editorial titled 'Texas School Board Shuts Off Microphone Of Valedictorian'. It is a widely held misconception that the US Constitution guarantees a 'separation of Church and State' – it is a buzz phrase that is often repeated buy rarely understood. I point the reader to language of the First Amendment to the Constitution, 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.” A plain reading of this passage indicates that Congress is prohibited from establishing any official religion and forbidden from outlawing the exercise of any religion. Additionally, Congress shall not perform any action infringing on the freedom of speech. Under the concept of incorporation, this prohibition applies to the states as well (some rights are so essential to our liberty that these freedoms apply not only to the federal laws, but state laws as well). No government of this land can legally prevent an individual from practicing his religion or speaking his mind. Based on what happened in Texas, it is apparent that the school system (allegedly acting in some capacity as a government institution enforcing a non-existent mandate) infringed upon not one but two of this young woman's guaranteed rights.

The phase 'separation of church and state' originates not from the Constitution, but rather from a letter by Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, the word 'church' does not appear in the Constitution at all, the word 'religion' appears only where I have quoted above. Dated 1802, Jefferson writes, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State”. This was an era when governments routinely established 'official' religions and openly persecuted members of other faiths. Our history teachers tell us of settlers to this land 'fleeing religious persecution'. Jefferson and the other founders were quite firm in their (correct) belief that such behavior was unacceptable in America; government has no place in dictating nor denying religion to anyone.

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It is the 1947 Supreme Court ruling 'Everson v. Board of Education' which discarded nearly 150 years of history, twisting Jefferson's words, and reinvented this 'separation' into what we see today – individuals unable to practice their faith or speak what they believe, simply because the forum is one that receives government funding.

Since that decision the phrase 'separation of church and state', like so many others, has been pounded into our collective mind in an attempt to redefine the unalienable rights defined broadly by the Declaration of Independence and protected explicitly by the Constitution. We live in a time where politicians and judges are intent on expanding their power by eliminating our rights. When nuisances like the Constitution get in their way, they dismiss it as 'outdated', conjure up concepts such as a 'living document', and redefine what has been known as truth since the 18th century – then tell us we simply aren't smart enough or educated enough to understand. It is my sincere belief that the fourth and tenth amendments have effectively been repealed without consent, with the first and second currently on the chopping block. This is an issue that transcends party and platform and should be worrisome to any who value individual liberty.

Should this young woman have wished to thank Jesus, praise Allah, laud mom and dad for an atheist upbringing, or anything in between – 'religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God' – and the school was neither endorsing nor establishing any religion by allowing her to finish her speech. By cutting her off it instead publicly trampled upon two of the most sacred freedoms she is guaranteed as an American.

Blake Duffey