What would Ben Franklin say about Carter County schools legal dilemma?

Published 8:21 am Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The old nemesis of religion in the public schools has again popped up in an unsightly way. When Tennessee K-12 public students began classes earlier this month, the national motto “In God We Trust” was required to be posted somewhere in their schools. What’s called the “National Motto Act” passed quietly in the Tennessee General Assembly last April.
But not in Carter County. Due to a legal issue in 1988, Carter County schools was placed under a permanent injunction from allowing, approving or encouraging religious activities on school property during school hours. The lawsuit came about when two Carter County families filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging CBM classes in Carter County schools. As a result the school system was placed under the permanent injunction and CBM officials promised to halt their monthly lessons in the schools for good. The suit claimed the Bible lessons encouraged students to pray in the name of Jesus Christ, which violated the U.S. Constitution’s call for separation of church and state.
1998 was a tumultous year for Carter County schools as earlier in the fall a local minister took issue with a Carter County high school football team for praying the Lord’s prayer prior to game time, contending that the prayer is fully loaded with doctrine, conflicting with the beliefs of his son, who was a member of the football team at the time.
An opinion from the State Attorney General said such prayers are in violation of Supreme Court rulings, and thus the “pre-game” huddle prayers stopped.
All this happened right here in Carter County, where there are churches — sometimes more than one — in every community, where people carry their Bibles to churches, in obituaries tout their church membership, and where on two hills overlooking the town of Elizabethton, there are three crosses to remind us of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
At the time these events happened, most true Christians were shocked. Some were angry, and some were outraged that the actions of a few would infringe on their freedoms. Too many people were familiar with the CBM Bible ladies to know that their programs were not bad. They had received their first New Testaments by memorizing Bible verses through the program.
Again, it comes down to the issues of rights and privileges. But, more and more there is the idea that the Constitution is a living document that must be interpreted according to changing times, not the Founding Fathers’ “original intent.”
When the Founding Fathers amended the Constitution they had written, the First Amendment was intended to protect and promote freedom of religion. Today, most Christians look at the “establishment clause” as a legal tool to restrict religion.
What the true feeling of most Tennesseans and other Americans is on religious expression in public places, including schools, is a question of special importance and one of interpretation.
The Constitution belongs to all of us. It was written not only to protect our legal rights, but also to express our common values. On the question of religion and the Constitution, the framers’ intent is explicit and the history is clear. It is true that the framers of the Constitution, like men and women of today, were themselves divided by a diversity of religious beliefs and personal convictions. But, virtually all were united by a common belief in the importance of religion as an aid and a friend to the constitutional order.
The connection between religion and liberty is one reason that the Founders considered religion to be indispensable to democracy. The First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law…prohibiting the free exercise of religion.
But the establishment clause has been turned upside down into a tool to restrict the free exercise of religion in public places and to oppose government support for religion of any kind. We think that kind of interpretation would surprise the Founding Fathers.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787 Benjamin Franklin proposed prayer, explaining, “We have been assured sir, the Sacred Writings that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. I also believe that, without his concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel.”
While we don’t advocate indoctrinating students into one religion or another, we’re saying religion does have a public place. And while some may oppose it, we doubt if Bible reading or praying the Lord’s Prayer ever caused any irreparable harm.
For years, the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and devotions were a regular part of the school day, and perhaps we are better today because of it. At least, we did not have the school shootings that we have today.
I wonder what Ben Franklin would have to say about Carter County schools not being able to display the national motto on its walls….all because 30 years ago two families objected to a Bible program in schools.

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