Written by Don Byrd
Church-state law is notoriously complex and nuanced. And thank goodness for that. After all, protecting an individual’s freedom to exercise religion while still safeguarding against the establishment of religion by the government is a delicate balance. Sustaining a law that respects the right of everyone to live out their faith and their conscience is an ambition that requires a thoughtful, earnest, and ongoing conversation.
Let’s be honest – religious liberty disputes can create some truly difficult and troubling questions of law and policy questions. To make matters worse, the outcome of a specific case is not always the best place to look for a clear understanding of the underlying law in question. The details of a court opinion can be more important than the bottom line of who won and who lost. Better said, the details of a court opinion often *are* the bottom line. And the details can be tough.
All of that to say: it’s in many ways understandable why misperceptions about the law of religious liberty persist. Still… some folks could try a little bit harder to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem when it comes to dispelling those misperceptions.
Take the issue of the Johnson Amendment, for example. Current law does prohibit houses of worship as tax-exempt organizations from engaging in electoral politics. But the law allows churches to speak out on the issues of the day, and allows clergy acting in their personal capacity to endorse candidates for public office. To hear opponents of the Johnson Amendment describe it, however, you might think the law silences ministers on every political topic, or that the IRS monitors and edits sermons.
In our public schools, it is true that school-sponsored prayer and religious indoctrination is prohibited by law, but students enjoy robust protection for religious expression. Students can pray on their own or in groups, can form religious clubs, display religious messages on clothing in the same manner that any message can be displayed, wear religious garb, and distribute religious literature in the same manner that any literature can be distributed. But to hear some people describe it, all religion has been removed from our public schools, and our children are forbidden from speaking of it.
Now I see from Rob Boston of Americans United that Franklin Graham is asking for public high school football coaches to defy the law, engage in civil disobedience, and pray with their football teams after Friday’s games this week. This comes in response to a recent court ruling that found a school district was within its rights to dismiss a coach that refused to stop his practice of going out to the 50-yard-line to pray immediately after a game while still on the job. School officials invited the coach to pray privately or on the field after his duties had ended, but he declined. Graham says, however that the court ruled “coaches can’t pray, or make religious gestures on the field, after games.” That’s not quite right, or even really close, to what the court said.
Religious exercise is strongly protected in the United States. Preachers can speak to their congregations about public policy (they just can’t endorse candidates on behalf of their congregations). Students can speak to their classmates about religion (they just can’t disrupt the school day or harass their classmates). And coaches can pray – before, during, and after their games (just not in a way that could pressure their students to participate).
Religious liberty advocates do their supporters a disservice when they use hyperbole, or let politics and fear direct their description of the state of the law. It’s tough enough to shine a light of clarity through the understandable thicket of judicial and legislative nuance that seeks to protect our religious freedom, without having to contend with oversimplified – or just plain false – characterizations. We can do better.