To the editor:
In a Jan. 31 letter, Mr. John Brady of Portsmouth asks Sakonnet Times readers to clarify why the President can take the oath of office on a Bible, but a banner “only” referring to “Our Father” was “torn down” in a Cranston school.
Our 13-year-old son had a ready answer: “Separation of church and state, duh.”
While succinct, we feel Mr. Brady may require a bit more detail. The First Amendment of the US Constitution (extended to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment) requires that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These two clauses, taken together with subsequent case law, answer Mr. Brady’s question. The right of an individual to worship as s/he chooses is protected, and one way in which it is protected is by prohibiting the government from imposing religious practice.
The use of a Bible during the oath of office reflects President Obama’s individual beliefs. There is no requirement for the President to either use a Bible or to say, “so help me god.” As was widely reported, President Obama specifically asked Chief Justice Roberts to include those words, which have been a tradition, but not a requirement. Others in office have made different choices.
Mr. Brady’s suggestion that god may not “be mentioned or even hinted to in our schools, on athletic fields or other public gatherings” is patently false. Not only is religious history, literature, music, and art studied widely in schools, but any individual is completely free to pray if s/he chooses at any time, as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others. Christian teaching, in particular, tells us that God is everywhere and hears our prayers, no matter how quietly whispered. We have always been perplexed at the notion that an omniscient god can be excluded from anything.
The banner in Cranston was actually a prayer beginning “Our Heavenly Father,” and ending with “Amen.” Posting such a banner in a public school violates the First Amendment by suggesting the establishment of a government-sanctioned religion. A brave sophomore, Jessica Ahlquist, with the assistance of the RI ACLU, defended her First Amendment rights. We concur with the US District Court, which said in the ruling that mandated removal, “No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that.”
If the banner had begun, “Praise Allah,” or “Ave Satanas!” it is hard to imagine Mr. Brady — or the parents of Cranston — rising so automatically to its defense.
On this 350th anniversary of the Rhode Island Royal Charter which granted, for the first time in history, “full liberty in religious concernments,” we hope that we have clarified these relatively straightforward issues to Mr. Brady’s satisfaction.
John G. McDaid
Jack W. McDaid