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Letter: Religious freedom isn't left at the school entrance

Letter to the editor
Letter to the editor
Deseret News

Religious freedom is embedded in the psyche of the United States of America. It is enshrined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The exact words are “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Over the years, there has been great controversy over the meaning of these words. The controversy related to public schools, however, is well settled. A number of U.S. Supreme Court decisions have provided a clear understanding of how religious freedom operates in public education.

The first priority is to distinguish between individual religious acts and those performed by government agents. Individual religious expressions are those performed by individual persons and are fully protected by the First Amendment. Public schools are a government function, and, therefore, public employees are prohibited from conducting or supporting any religious activity. An example: A teacher-coach in a public school is a government agent performing a government service. The teacher-coach is therefore prohibited from engaging in any religious activity (prayer, reading the Bible) while under the employment of the government (the public school). This applies to all public employees as well as the members of the board of education when the board is in session.

As for the students, however, they are individuals in schools and are free to engage in any religious activity of their choice (pray, carry a Bible, wear religious clothing or have a black dot on their forehead). The individual religious acts of students do not violate the First Amendment. School personnel should be respectful of students who engage in religious acts while in school. It must be fully understood that students do not leave their religious freedom at the school entrance but carry it into the school and the classroom.

We are all fortunate to live in a nation that protects individual religious freedom. We are also fortunate that it prohibits government from establishing a religion.

M. Donald Thomas