In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught his disciples about religious practices such as charity and prayer. In contrast with the vulgar display of false piety of the Pharisees and religious teachers of his day, Jesus admonished his followers to practice their religion privately:
So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others—but let your giving be in secret. And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. [Instead], go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. And do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them (Matthew 6:1-8).
Indeed, many of Jesus’s most significant spiritual experiences with his disciples—including times of instruction, periods of rest and prayer, the transfiguration, their shared meals, and indeed, their last supper together—were private events.
Jesus’ teachings and practice of private religion have much to say to us today about “religious liberty.”
In a recent op-ed article, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, wrote that “our country was founded [on] the freedom to express ourselves through speech, through the press, through assembly [and] petition, and through faith—and no American forfeits these freedoms to anyone or in any place, [not even] in public schools. The ‘separation of church and state’ [should] not separate people from their faith—yet many students and teachers are separated from their faith while they are in [public] school[s]” (“Betsy DeVos: Religious Liberty in Our Schools Must Be Protected,” USA Today, January 17, 2020).
DeVos’s article reads like a Trump re-election campaign ad, targeted at Evangelicals—so it is perhaps pointless to spend much time analyzing it. Still, we should remember that the right to exercise our First Amendment freedoms is not absolute. The freedom of religion, for example, does not give a Christian student the right to take over a math class and turn it into a prayer meeting.
DeVos cited three recent violations of religious liberty in public schools:
►”A Utah fourth-grader was told by his teacher that [coming to] school wearing ashes” on Ash Wednesday was “inappropriate.” The teacher gave [the child] a cloth to wipe his forehead.”
►”Kentucky high school sophomore Emily Chaney established a “prayer locker” in her school so that fellow students could submit prayer requests anonymously.” But when “a radical secularist group complained, the local superintendent [shut down] Emily[’s] prayer locker.”
►”In Washington State, longtime high school football coach Joe Kennedy would wait until everyone had cleared the gridiron, take a knee and silently thank God for the opportunity to compete. Coach Kennedy prayed after every game—until the school district threw a flag on [his] praying. [He] was suspended and then effectively terminated.”
These incidents raise important questions. What harm, if any, would have been done if the fourth-grader had been allowed to wear ashes in class? And how difficult would it have been for the Utah teacher to then have to explain religious liberty and accommodation to a class of curious fourth-graders?
Moreover, how did a “radical secularist group” find out about Emily’s “prayer locker?” Did Emily make an announcement, or hand out flyers, about it in school? Did she try to incite controversy over it? And how did Coach Kennedy get in trouble? DeVos said that he “would wait until everyone had cleared the gridiron” before kneeling down to pray. If so, how did the school district find out about his praying? Why did Coach Kennedy have to pray on the football field? Why couldn’t he just have prayed when he got home? It seems likely that Emily’s and Coach Kennedy’s actions contradicted Jesus’s admonitions about praying privately.
Oliver Thomas, co-author of the ACLU handbook, The Right to Religious Liberty, and Charles C. Haynes, the founding director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute, acknowledged in a recent USA Today article that certain “limits” are often imposed “on the free exercise of religion.” But any such restrictions “must be justified by a compelling governmental interest.” Thus, “public schools have a compelling interest in teaching students to read. But that interest might not extend to requiring a student to read a particular book over the religious objections of a family if an alternative can be assigned.” Similarly, many “public schoo[ls] prohibi[t] students from wearing head coverings, primarily to keep gang symbols out of school.” But religious exceptions are made to allow for the faith of “Jewish boy[s and] Muslim girl[s who are] required to cover their head[s]” (“Evangelical, Muslim, Jewish. It’s Time We All Renew Our Commitment To Religious Freedom,” November 29, 2019).
“As early as the Revolutionary War, accommodations were made for Quakers who for reasons of conscience were unwilling to take up arms against the British. Then and now, debates over religious accommodations are complex and contentious. Americans are engaged in bitter debates over the relationship between claims of conscience and other fundamental rights such as equal protection, as in cases involving vendors and same-sex weddings.”
University of Pennsylvania educator Jonathan Zimmerman recalls that “the Supreme Court [had] barred devotional Bible reading and recitations of prayer[s] in public schools in 1963. But the ruling [permitted Bible] courses, so long as they were “presented objectively [in] a secular program of education,” and were not intended to proselytize, or convert students to a particular religion (“New Push for Public School Bible Studies Classes Is an Excuse To Spread Christian Gospel,” USA Today, February 8, 2019).
“Evangelical Christians promptly began a full-court press” to start teaching Bible classes that “were hardly objective or secular. A Florida ‘Bible history’ teacher said [that he] had recruit[ed] more than 100 new members into an after-school ‘Youth for Christ’ [club]. And in South Carolina, a student said [that her] ‘Bible survey’ [class] had persuaded her to become a missionary.”
“Lawmakers in at least six states have introduced measures requir[ing] or encourag[ing] elective Bible classes”—intended “only to inform [students] about a central text in American and world history.” (On that basis, legislators should feel comfortable sponsoring similar classes on the Quran, the Torah, the sacred Hindu and Buddhist writings, and other important religious texts.) In reality, of course, the “information” that these Bible classes present “is biased towards evangelical Christianity.”
Indeed, “schools in Texas [are] requir[ed by law] to teach about the Bible’s influence on history and literature. Several schools present the Bible as ‘the inerrant word of God, written under God’s direction and inspiration.’ Some evangeliz[e]. ‘A true relationship to God is…the personal responsibility of each individual,’” read a pamphlet that was given to students in one school district. The pamphlet then asked, “‘Would you like to place your trust in Jesus Christ, and receive Him as your Savior?’”
President Trump has tweeted his support for these classes, as part of a pandering campaign to please the religious right, but he ignores the reality of religious pluralism, and “leaves out anyone who isn’t an evangelical Christian.”
Indeed, not long ago, religious liberty referred to the right of people to practice their faith, or to practice no faith at all, free from Government interference. One recalls Roger Williams and the founding of “the Colony of Rhode Island, [where] every [resident] had the freedom to worship as they chose” (“Roger Williams, Rhode Island, and Birthplace of Religious Freedom,” George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom).
But today, Conservatives have redefined religious freedom to signify the “right” to preach to others in public spaces and to discriminate against gay people, the poor, people of color, women, immigrants, and anyone else they don’t like, ostensibly on the basis of their faith.
Prayer and religious practices are commendable at home and in the church, but they are often problematic in restaurants, at school, on a football field before the big game, and in any other pluralistic setting. Public prayer can easily devolve into a narrow sectarian and/or evangelistic Phariseeism that divides people and condemns those who are not devout. The same is true of allowing prayer services and Bible studies in public buildings, and of permitting religious symbols to be displayed in schools and courthouses.
In the weeks after DeVos’s article was published, President Trump turned the National Prayer Breakfast—an event that has more to do with celebrating American civil religion than with heeding Jesus’s teachings about private prayer—into a reality show.
Evangelicals who complain about the denial of their religious freedoms always emphasize public displays of religion—which did not greatly impress Jesus, and are always subject to limitations and restrictions—but that is the only way they can make their case. After all, no one complains about being denied the freedom to pray at home.
The number of Christians is declining, and America is no longer a “Christian country”—if it ever was one. If freedom of religion requires that we publicly privilege Christianity, the Bible, and Christian symbolism and holidays—and I don’t believe that it does—then we must privilege all other religious expressions, sacred writings, and religious symbols and holidays. It’s that simple.
Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.