Reader Helps Clarify Constitutional Issue

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To the Editor:

A statement attributed to the Philadelphia schools’ chief executive officer, Paul G. Vallas, in your article "Philadelphia Schools Reach Out to Faith Groups" (Nov. 10, 2004) ranks among the most irresponsible I’ve seen from a public school administrator, and is just plain wrong. He reportedly said: “The Constitution allows freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”

As a former school principal, I know that many parents, including some who are devoutly religious, want freedom from public school religion for their children, whether during the day or after school. As a former graduate student who did a master’s thesis examining constitutionally proper and improper religious practices in public schools, I have no doubt that the intent of the First Amendment is to provide both freedom of religion for those who wish to practice it and freedom from religion for those who do not. Both freedoms carry equal weight, constitutionally, and leave matters of religion to individual conscience, not government.

The Founding Fathers who drafted the U.S. Constitution were aware of and respected America’s religious heritage. Mostly religious men themselves, they also were acutely aware that most Colonial governments either had an established religion or had imposed majority religious practices on their citizens. Some of these governments had harassed and persecuted religious minorities and those who did not profess a belief in God. With this knowledge, the Constitution’s framers deliberately developed a secular governing document that made no reference to God and included the stipulation that “no religious test shall ever be required” to serve in government.

To further protect minorities from religious imposition by the majority, the Constitution was amended before ratification to assure that government cannot favor religious belief over nonbelief, or vice versa. The First Amendment prohibits “establishment of religion” while assuring “free exercise thereof.”

Since public schools are agencies of government, these constitutional principles and limitations also apply to public schools.

Gene Bryant
Nashville, Tenn.

Vol. 24, Issue 14, Page 42

Published in Print: December 1, 2004, as Reader Helps Clarify Constitutional Issue

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