A Partial Victory for Religious Freedom

Kudos to Wisconsin public high school senior Rachel Honer for standing up for her convictions and the crucially important principle of religious freedom.

Rachel was one of three students the Winneconne High School faculty selected to speak at the school’s graduation ceremony. School officials agreed to Rachel’s request to sing instead of speak, but got nervous when she told them she would sing the Christian song “He’s Always Been Faithful,” by Sara Groves. But they really came unglued when she provided the lyrics, which included three mentions of “God.”

School principal Jim Smasal informed Rachel that the word “God” might offend some of the audience members and would violate the “separation of church and state.” But he suggested the perfect solution. She could sing the song, as long as she replaced references to “God” with “He,” “Him” and “His.” Oh, boy!

The problem is that this little fix didn’t sit well with Rachel, a young lady with obvious principles. She filed a federal lawsuit, and the district reversed itself, saying she could sing the song with its original lyrics, but could still not mention “God” in her introductory remarks.

Apart from the outcome here, one wonders whether school officials like this truly think through these issues or are just slaves to the mind-numbing nostrums of political correctness.

The Framers never intended that the federal government and especially the state governments stay entirely out of religion. The original Congress that passed the First Amendment endorsed all kinds of governmental religious activities, such as the appointment of congressional chaplains and recognizing national days of fasting and prayer. But for the sake of argument, let’s ignore that history and assume the Constitution forbids all levels of government and their agencies and subsidiaries from endorsing religion in the slightest.

Given that assumed premise, should Rachel’s plan to sing a Christian song and give introductory remarks mentioning “God” have concerned school officials? Opponents would have a stronger argument if the school, say, through its choir, had chosen the religious song. That’s even a stretch, since merely singing beautiful songs doesn’t mean endorsing their contents.

But here the school district didn’t choose the song, Rachel did. There was no state action involved, except for the school permitting her to sing or speak about God. Don’t you see how allergic our society has become to religion?

The school would no more be endorsing Rachel’s religion by allowing her to mention God than it would be endorsing her views if she stood up at a school assembly and advocated that all schoolteachers cut their ties to the National Education Association. Rachel’s constitutionally protected views would in no way reflect the policies of the school (unfortunately).

Voluntary student expression on school property should not be imputed to the school itself just because it provides a forum for students to speak — especially if that student expression is otherwise protected by the Constitution. And let’s be clear. Rachel Honer is entitled to the constitutional freedoms of speech and religion, regardless of whether the school happens to approve of her views.

The whole point of preventing government endorsement of religion is to protect religious freedom. But in their obsession to achieve total church-state separation through the First Amendment Establishment Clause in the name of fostering religious freedom, the separationist zealots are suppressing religious freedom, which is also protected by that same First Amendment. By prohibiting students from uttering “God,” the school is stifling religious freedom, not advancing it.

There’s one other important issue involved. Increasingly, state officials and anti-Christian activists are opposing religious expression because it might offend someone hearing it. Perhaps I was in Europe at the time, but I don’t remember passage of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right of people not to be offended.

But if necessary we can all play the hypersensitivity game. I’m offended, too — at the recurrent effort by the high priests of political correctness and enemies of Christian expression to label much of the Christian belief system as “hate speech” and offensive on its face. But that’s a topic for another column. Let’s keep our eye on the big ball here, which is religious freedom. This country was founded on it, and we must try to safeguard it, especially against those who would selectively repress it under the Orwellian pretense that they’re trying to protect it.

My hat is off to Rachel Honer and her attorneys at the Rutherford Institute and all other warriors for religious freedom who have the courage to fight for their beliefs and rights.