Two news stories this week illustrate the potential danger to religious freedom posed by secularist judges and politicians. The first comes from New York City, and the Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals. The court, in a decision certain to be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, ruled that the city could refuse to rent school facilities to religious organizations without running afoul of the First Amendment. According to the New York Times:
New York City may again block religious groups from using school facilities outside of regular school hours for “religious worship services,” a federal appeals court in Manhattan ruled on Thursday.
Deciding 2 to 1, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said the city had “a strong basis to believe” that allowing the religious services to be conducted in schools could be seen as the kind of endorsement of religion that violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
“When worship services are performed in a place,” Judge Pierre N. Leval wrote for the majority, “the nature of the site changes. The site is no longer simply a room in a school being used temporarily for some activity.”
“The place has, at least for a time, become the church,” he wrote, adding that the city’s policy imposed “no restraint on the free expression of any point of view.” Rather, it applied only to “a certain type of activity — the conduct of worship services — and not to the free expression of religious views associated with it.”
This reasoning is straight out of the Soviet approach to dealing with religion. “You may hold any opinion you like, but you may not do anything that can be seen as living out those opinions.” This, however, is even more restrictive than the Soviet Union’s. There, the church was prohibited from a variety of activities, including educating children (which was deemed “indoctrination”) and works of mercy (which was seen as impinging on state prerogatives), but was allowed to conduct the defining function of the organization, namely worship. Here, Leval denies the church even that modicum of freedom.
Some might say, “well, why don’t they just go somewhere else?” Two responses: 1) They may not have anywhere else to go. As a church planter, I can testify to the fact that many churches meet in schools, despite the less than optimal conditions, because they are affordable and available (especially in a place like New York, commercial space is going to be prohibitively expensive for many small congregations, and many commercial landowners won’t rent to churches). 2) Because they have a right to use those facilities if they are available and the city rents to any other outside groups (which it does all the time). The fatuous notion that the presence of religious believers engaged in an organized activity somehow changes the ontological status of a school building while they are there is as ridiculous an excuse to arrive at a pre-determined conclusion as I’ve ever heard. But Leval wasn’t done:
Judge Leval, in his ruling, distinguished the Bronx Household of Faith from the Bible study group involved in the Supreme Court decision. The Bronx church and others using the city’s schools, he wrote, “tend to dominate the schools on the day they use them.”
“They use the largest rooms and are typically the only outside group using a school on Sunday,” he wrote.
So if they used smaller rooms and ensured that there was a group of bird watching enthusiasts using the biggest rooms on Sunday, then it would be OK?
The other example may be, if anything, even more egregious, and comes from Texas, of all places, where a federal district court judge has decided to regulate a high school graduation ceremony, right down to banning the use of certain words. According to Fox News Radio:
A federal judge has ordered a Texas school district to prohibit public prayer at a high school graduation ceremony. Chief U.S. District Judge Fred Biery’s order against the Medina Valley Independent School District also forbids students from using specific religious words including “prayer” and “amen.”
Judge Biery’s ruling banned students and other speakers from using and religious language in their speeches. Among the banned words or phrases are: “join in prayer,” “bow their heads,” “amen,” and “prayer.”
He also ordered the school district to remove the terms “invocation” and “benediction” from the graduation program.
“These terms shall be replaced with ‘opening remarks’ and ‘closing remarks’,” the judge’s order stated. His ruling also prohibits anyone from saying, “in [a deity’s name] we pray.”
Should a student violate the order, school district officials could find themselves in legal trouble. Judge Biery ordered that his ruling be “enforced by incarceration or other sanctions for contempt of Court if not obeyed by District official (sic) and their agents.”
Once again, we see the totalitarian impulse in the imperial judiciary. He’s going to toss school officials in jail if anyone has the nerve, the gall, the cohones, to use the word “prayer,” even if the person isn’t actually praying, but is, say, just quoting from a popular song. And why is this black-robed tyrant spitting in the face of free speech?
The ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed by Christa and Danny Schultz. Their son is among those scheduled to participate in Saturday’s graduation ceremony. The judge declared that the Schultz family and their son would “suffer irreparable harm” if anyone prayed at the ceremony.
They would suffer “irreparable harm” if anyone even mentioned the word “prayer,” or asked attendees to “bow their heads,” say for a moment of silence for fallen troops from the school? So these people have never, ever been exposed to such words in any public setting before? They’ve never watched a presidential inauguration? Seen the opening of a session of Congress? They are unaware that the U.S. Supreme Court opens its sessions with a bailiff calling, “God save the United States of America and this honorable Court”? (The same “prayer” would have opened the district court session during which this inane decision was announced, so if the Schultzes were present for the announcement, they have no doubt been scarred for life.) Are the Schultzes sensibilities really so delicate that they had to get a federal judge to prevent them from hearing certain words? Do they plan on living under a rock their entire lives?
Make no mistake about it, folks. There are people out there who are convinced that the world would be a better place if people of any religion–but especially conservative Christians–could be permanently silenced, and they will use whatever means they have available to them to shut down our speech, our churches, and our ministry to the world.