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Slim Smith: An anniversary that is neither understood nor celebrated

 

Slim Smith

 

The 1960s were turbulent times in our country. That is why every month, it seems, there is some official recognition of a milestone anniversary. 

 

When you consider the great movements, issues and events of the decade -- Civil Rights, Women's Movement, Gay Rights, Vietnam, the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., just to name a few -- the reminders of the America of a half-century ago are everywhere. 

 

Here in Mississippi -- the site of many of the seminal events in the Civil Rights movement -- 50th anniversary seminars, commemorations and speeches have helped remind us of the state's often painful past while offering hope for a more promising future, provided we have learned from those events. 

 

But not all events that mark 50th anniversaries this year will be acknowledged or celebrated. 

 

For example, June 17, 1963 will engender no warm feelings here in the Bible Belt. 

 

That was the day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Abington School District v. Schempp, that organized Bible reading and prayer in public schools was unconstitutional. The case involved a Pennsylvania school that conducted a Bible reading, followed by the Lord's Prayer, over the school intercom system. 

 

Almost instantly, the decision became known as the day "they kicked God out of the public schools." 

 

In the intervening years, the chorus of "they kicked God out of the schools," has become a predictable mantra when something bad -- or perceived to be bad -- happens. 

 

Columbine? That's what happens when you kick God out of the schools. 

 

Newtown? Same song, second verse. 

 

President Obama reelected? You get the picture. 

 

I have always felt that those who make that claim are arguing contrary to ideals that were an important part of our nation's founding principles as expressed through the Constitution, which under the First Amendment strictly forbade any laws "respecting the establishment of religion" while simultaneously protecting the right of "free exercise of religion." 

 

Otherwise, we would have to determine the "official God" of our public schools. Whose concept of God shall with go with? Protestant? Catholic? Jewish? Jehovah's Witness? Hindu? Muslim?  

 

If our country is truly built on religious freedom, there could be no legal basis for choosing one form of religious view at the exclusion of all others. Doing that would be establishing a state religion which, as noted, is expressly forbidden by the Constitution. 

 

I have two personal experiences that inform my views on this topic. 

 

The first was from childhood. A friend of mine, Anthony, was the son of a Southern Baptist preacher. Anthony's father was a Southern Baptist preacher like no other I have ever met. He scoffed when someone would complain, "they kicked God out of the schools," assuming it was a sentiment the good pastor shared.  

 

Hardly. 

 

"My dad carried a copy of this Supreme Court decision in his suit pocket the whole time he was a preacher in Mississippi and dared the people who claimed, 'They kicked God out of school!' to read it," Anthony recalled. "None ever did." 

 

If you are among those who are similarly inclined to mourn the Court's ruling, you owe it to yourself to at least read it. It's an easy Google search away. 

 

Rather than a document dripping with disdain for the Christian faith, you will find instead that the justices displayed great reverence for Christianity and acknowledged its role in shaping and maintaining the country.  

 

The ruling was intended not as a means to diminish the role of religion in our nation, but rather, to protect and preserve it. 

 

I think we see plenty of evidence that demonstrates what can happen when any religion becomes the state religion. In state religion, the religion always conforms to the state, not the other way around.  

 

Certainly, I can see the truth of that in recent years, when more and more evangelical Christians seem to have reduced the faith to a political ideology (All conservatives may not be Christians, but all "true" Christians are certainly conservatives). It's a dangerous premise, unworthy of the faith. 

 

The second experience that helped shape my view on this subject happened when I was living in Arizona. There, I attended Grace Community Church, a large non-denominational evangelical Christian church. In Sunday School, complaints about God's expulsion from the schools were not infrequent. Then one Sunday, a lady told the class that she was disturbed because a teacher was indoctrinating her child's class in her religious views. The school was located in Mesa, which just so happens to have the highest population of Mormons in the world outside of Salt Lake City. As you might have guessed, the teacher in question was a Mormon. This was back in 2005, before political expediency prevailed on evangelical Christians to hold the Mormon church in a more favorable light, at least through the 2012 presidential election cycle. 

 

It struck me as odd that on all those previous occasions, the idea that a teacher could not "share the faith" with students had been viewed as a grim reality. Then, all of the sudden, the Sunday School class acquired a far different view of religion in public schools. 

 

The class arrived, at least for the moment, at the place I had occupied all along. 

 

It's a safe bet that June 17, 1963, won't be celebrated when it marks its 50th anniversary later this year. 

 

But, at least, it deserves to be understood for what it is.  

 

 

 

 

Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is ssmith@cdispatch.com.

 

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