To the editor:
In the January 31, 2013 edition of the Sakonnet Times, John F. Brady of Portsmouth wrote a letter titled “Oath of office: Confusion of a biblical sort.” In the letter he expressed his confusion over what the government is, and isn’t, allowed to do regarding religion and the mention of God. He asks if some readers of the Sakonnet Times could clarify his understanding. This letter is an attempt to do so.
The powers and limitations of the government concerning religious matters are controlled mainly by the two religion clauses in the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first part of that phrase is known as the establishment clause, and the second part as the free exercise clause. Sixteen simple words that guarantee religious liberty in the United States, and which have spawned thousands of pages of writings and numerous Supreme Court cases.
Based on Supreme Court precedent, the establishment clause prevents the government from endorsing one religion over another, or endorsing religion in general over non-religion (and vice versa). In a nutshell, the government must be neutral in matters of religion. The free exercise clause guarantees an individual’s right to practice their religion as they see fit (or not practice any at all) without interference or persecution from the government.
Concerning religion in the public schools, the idea that “we do not allow (God) to be mentioned or even hinted to in our schools” is untrue. Students can practice their religion and express their faith individually or among their peers as long as is does not disrupt the school or classroom. Teachers and other staff can also practice their religion and express their faith individually or among their peers. This is protected by the free exercise clause of the Constitution. The only things that are prohibited are religious activities sponsored or endorsed by the school, or performed publicly in the school by representatives of the school. A great resource for what religious activities can and cannot be done in public schools was published by the US Department of Education and can be found here: http://www2.ed.gov/policy/gen/guid/religionandschools/prayer_guidance.html
Concerning President Obama taking his oath of office using two Bibles, the US Constitution explicitly spells out the oath for the President in article II, section 1. It is: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” As you can see, there is no requirement to swear this oath using a Bible or any other text. That President Obama chose to swear the oath using two Bibles (one belonged to Abraham Lincoln and the other to Martin Luther King, Jr.) was his personal choice and is protected by the free exercise clause of the Constitution. Also, since the inauguration is a privately funded and organized event the establishment clause does not apply.
Concerning displaying the Ten Commandments in our courts, doing so would clearly be an endorsement of religion by the government and is therefore prohibited by the establishment clause. Displaying one version only (there are differences between the Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant versions) would be a government endorsement of one religion over another and is also prohibited.
There are some grey areas in what the government is, and is not, allowed to do concerning religious matters but the overall ideas are very clear thanks to the US Constitution and many precedents set by the courts on its interpretation. Hopefully this cleared up some of Mr. Brady’s (and other people’s) confusion on the subject.