April 22, 2003 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

It's Not Freedom From Religion - Part 2

Two weeks ago in this column, I wrote about students who had been suspended from their high school for passing out candy canes because a Christian message was attached, and I also told readers about a preacher who was banned from praying before a state legislature because his prayer mentioned Jesus.

Numerous e-mails from readers posed interesting questions: What if the notes attached to the candy canes had a verse from the Koran? What then would have been the school's reaction? What if the preacher had been a Muslim or a Buddhist?

In other words, was the bias against religious speech in general - or against Christianity in particular? This question begs to be answered considering the recent attempts to punish and censor Secretary of Education Rod Paige over his recent remarks in an interview with the Baptist Press.

The interviewer, Todd Starnes, asked Secretary Paige: "Given the choice between private and Christian - or private and public universities - what do you think, who do you think has the best deal?"

Paige's response: "That's a judgment, too, that would vary because each of them have real strong points and some of them have some vulnerabilities. But, you know, all things being equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school where there's a strong appreciation of values, the kind of values that I think are associated with the Christian communities, and so that child can be brought up in an environment that teaches them to have strong faith and to understand that there is a force greater than them personally."

An all-too-familiar firestorm ensued. According to Peter Wood, writing in National Review, everyone from AthiestParents.org to the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to Ameena Jandali, a member of the board of the Islamic Networks Group of San Jose, Calif., to members of the U.S. Congress condemned the secretary, called for a retraction or, failing that, a resignation, and delivered an all-around slam against such "religious bigotry."

Never mind that Paige wasn't talking about public schools - he was asked about universities. Never mind that he wasn't suggesting everyone attend Christian schools - he merely expressed an opinion that universities appreciative of Christian values seem to him to do a better job of educating students.

(By the way, on the whole, Christian schools do, in fact, educate their students more effectively than public schools. Their students routinely score better on standardized achievement tests despite lower per-pupil expenditures, lower teacher salaries and far less spent on school construction, "diversity appreciation," and other initiatives that help policymakers look "concerned" about education but, in fact, do little to improve it. But I digress.)

Secretary Paige simply said that traditional values - the values on which this country was founded - produce a better climate for education. This seems beyond argument. Matthew Spalding, a colleague here at the Heritage Foundation who specializes in the study of America's founding, argued in a recent lecture that if we are to restore the vision of America's founders, we must "actively encourage the revival of the true institutions of civil society - families, churches and schools - so as to rebuild the moral character of our citizens."

Paige referred to these values as Christian values - but never said they are exclusively Christian. Obviously, he was reflecting on these traditional values within the framework of which he is personally familiar, within the context of the religion that shaped his own life, that delivered him to his present station.

Within days, 12 members of Congress had called on Paige to recant or resign. A letter signed by some of them claimed Paige had "denigrated" their own faiths and educational choices. How sad for religious freedom and free speech, that a dozen of the nation's most powerful leaders, who have no problem stating their own religious views, would seek to censor a fellow leader for voicing his. Would they have done so if Secretary Paige's remarks had been favorable of a religion other than Christianity? I wonder.

Religious freedom and free speech are inextricably linked. Neither will be alive and well until everyone from school children to public officials are free to state their personal religious beliefs and preferences. It seems that in the era after 9-11, our efforts to make those who hold views other than Christianity feel at home in America have created a dangerous climate for those who choose to openly profess their Christian faith. It seems we are entering a "never-say-Christian" era.

The message of the First Amendment is as clear today as it was when our Founding Fathers so wisely penned it, and it applies to Americans of all faiths, and all walks of life. It's time to state what should be obvious - the public expression of religion is protected in this country - even for Christians.

-Rebecca Hagelin is a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a research and educational think-tank whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values and a strong national defense. She is also the former vice president of communications for WorldNetDaily and her 60-second radio commentaries can be heard on the Salem Communications Network.

Reprinted with the permission of the internet newspaper WorldNetDaily.com.

About the Author

Rebecca Hagelin Senior Communications Fellow