Thursday, December 01, 2005

Free exercise vs. the establishment

I consider myself a Christian. But that’s beside the point.

My personal spiritual beliefs have little to do with my opinion about the lawsuit brought a few weeks ago against the Riverhead school district by four residents angered by the district’s agreement to rent space at Riley Avenue Elementary School to a Christian church for Sunday worship services.

This is a frivolous lawsuit that we taxpayers are going to pay dearly to defend.

It’s frivolous because there’s plenty of legal precedent that says so, including decisions by the highest court in the nation. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2001 that an upstate New York school district’s refusal to allow a religious group to use school property because its activities were religious in nature violated the group’s First Amendment rights under the United States Constitution. That decision followed the Supreme Court’s 1993 ruling against the Center Moriches School District in a similar case. Less than a week after the plaintiffs announced their lawsuit against the Riverhead school district, a federal judge in New York City threw out a similar case, citing these two Supreme Court decisions as binding precedent.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the current lawsuit against Riverhead schools will eventually meet with the same fate.

Why is this lawsuit a dog, anyway? Isn’t it true that our constitution mandates the separation of church and state in the U.S.? How can it possibly be legal for a church to hold Sunday services in a public building like a school? The very notion raises the hackles of many an uninformed secularist.

Actually the words “separation of church and state” are nowhere to be found in the U.S. Constitution.

When it was written in 1787, the constitution was intended to create a unified, lasting national government — without infringing too much on states’ rights. It didn’t make much note of individual rights. It was a controversial document then, and so it remains today. One of the most heated controversies at the time was actually the document’s failure to protect individual rights — the constitution nearly wasn’t ratified because of its silence on certain individual freedoms. That’s why the framers went to work amending the constitution even before its ratification was official. Their work is reflected in the first 10 amendments of the constitution, collectively known as the Bill of Rights.

The first order of business was to guarantee certain freedoms that the framers of the Constitution held essential. And so the First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
The exact meaning of these 45 words — arguably the most important words in the document for ordinary people like you and me — has been the subject of a legion of federal cases. The freedoms they guarantee, as precious to individuals and as essential to a free society today as they were 214 years ago, are in greater jeopardy today than ever before in our union’s history. But not because the North Shore Christian Church is renting space at Riley Avenue Elementary School for Sunday services. The so-called Patriot Act is what ought to be putting fear in the hearts of Americans worried about their personal freedom.

In the current case against the Riverhead school district, two basic First Amendment questions are raised. Does renting space in a school building, when school isn’t in session, to a religious group for religous purposes constitute an “establishment of religion?” The answer is, simply, no. If the school district refused to rent space to a religious group for religious services while at the same time renting space to other community groups, would that constitute prohibiting the free exercise of religion? The answer to this is yes.

The First Amendment rights of the small group of Christians meeting in a publicly owned building — in space they are paying rent for — are the only First Amendment rights in danger of being trampled here. They are no different than all the other groups that rent school property during non-school hours for purposes that have nothing to do with primary or secondary public education — groups of adults learning line dancing or reiki healing, cultural groups putting on dance performances or theater groups producing plays. They are certainly no less protected by the First Amendment than the Indian cultural heritage organization that holds Hindu religious services in another district school.

The establishment clause and the free exercise clause of the First Amendment go together hand in glove. Our founding fathers (and mothers) knew about religious persecution. They knew what it was like to have one’s particular brand of spiritual expression banned — even on penalty of death. They understood the role an “official” state religion has in that kind of repression and persecution. And with the very first words of the Bill of Rights they sought to ensure that such persecution would never again happen on American soil.

Note: December marks a season deep in spiritual meaning for many people in our multicultural society. Fittingly, this month also marks the anniversary of the Bill of Rights, ratified Dec. 15, 1791.


Aquebogue analyst said...

This is right on target. There is a really big difference between establishment of religion and what the school district is doing. Why don't religious groups have the same rights as other groups? Can't we protect religious freedom without banning religion altogether?

mkitcowt said...

Amen :)
Some people have too much time on their hands.

(ps. Welcome back!)

Ray said...

I'm a former resident of Riverhead and I read your blog regularly. I couldn't believe this story when I first read it. I think the plaintiffs should spend more time in schools than suing them.

Here in Virginia, my own church meets in a middle school. In fact, every school in my neighborhood has a church meeting there on Sunday. It is a win-win situation, where the church gets a place to meet every week (usually temporarily) and the school district gets a steady income from the rent.

There is no establishment here, only free exercise and the court should throw this frivolous lawsuit out. Denise, please keep us informed.

-Ray DeFrese
Potomac Falls, VA

Anonymous said...

my civic meets in a church. We discuss political issues and work with government...

Natasha said...

I enjoyed your column this week and I had some comments I wanted to make; some more questions to pose. I have had many discussions with my brother, a religious man but also realistic in the ways of the world. Most discussions pertained to gay marriage and abortion (you know.. the big ones!) and I found his view points very interesting. I gained a sense of respect for his open-mindedness (which i felt he previously lacked) because his opinions were beyond his personal beliefs. I do have a point here. Read on.
I have always felt personal freedoms are extremely important in any situation, however, there are a few issues to consider with this court case. Many would argue, such as yourself, that if you let one do it, then all others should have the right. I do agree with this, but there is more information to be brought to the table. We must look beyond the religious aspect of this case and think about what it could possibly do for the future of our communities. I believe religion to be very important in establishing a well-balanced community, no matter what your beliefs, but when you start to really look at things in a broader sense, you are not just OK'ing churches to utilize this freedom. I have one simple question. If a school agrees to rent space to a religious group for religious services when school is not in session then do radical, non-conformist groups also hold the right to do the same? There are many radical groups in this world who, at times, have been known to preach against individual freedoms and blatently persecute people for their race, among other things. I am not saying its wrong to let religious groups rent space, but i think we need to evaluate the bigger picture before we start saying "yes/no" and make adjustments accordingly.

Celia L. Iannelli said...

Hi Denise - I find myself amazed and quite frankly dazed by this issue. Really, it should be a non-issue. With the real concerns of Riverhead,jobs,unemployment,higher taxes, protecting our natural resources,racial bias to name a few, these people are initiating
a law suit because a Christian church wants to hold Sunday Services in a school? Even as I type this I shake my head. What do they fear? Perhaps "religion"
will jump out and leave a mark in the classroom? In my little church in Mattituck, we hold AA meetings - a private group meeting in a
"sacred" place. For me, it is a honor to house this group that is trying to pull themselves together. I see no differnce in holding Church service in a school, none at all.By the way,
other words for frivolous are silly,flighty, scatterbrained, empty-headed, get the picture.

Celia L. Iannelli