Let’s not forget the ‘free exercise’ part

For those who might have forgotten, the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty comes in two parts.

Congress “shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.” That’s the part Americans seem to remember.

But it must also refrain from laws “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That’s the part too many of us forget these days.

Public officials have spent so much time and energy trying to chase every remnant of religion from the public square that they neglect to remind us that the square belongs to us, and it is our cherished right to pray there if we choose.

So perhaps we should forgive the Indiana elementary teacher who thought she was being true to the Constitution when she sent a letter home warning parents to tell their children to stop talking about God, Jesus and the devil in her classroom.

“With McCordsville Elementary being a public school, we have many different religions and beliefs, and I do not want to upset a child/parent because of these words being used,” the teacher’s letter said. “If you go to church or discuss these things at home, please have a talk with your child about there being an appropriate time and place of talking about it.”

The teacher also noted that she warned the students before about discussing religion in class.

Shame on those awful children for trying to taint that school.

It took contact from several concerned parents to Superintendent Shane Roberts and a letter from him to the parents to set the record straight.

“To simply summarize, MVCSC employees can neither advance nor inhibit religious views,” his letter said. “Trying to limit a student’s view on religion is a violation of a student’s First Amendment rights. However, if the discussion becomes an academic disruption, then as a district, we can intervene to maintain the integrity of the educational process while at the same time being sure to not violate a student’s constitutional rights.”

The superintendent has it exactly right. He has a rare understanding of religion’s role in American life, and he deserves high praise for his constitutional literacy, an uncommon trait among today’s educators.

Of course, any day now he can expect a letter from the Indiana American Civil Liberties Union giving him a stern warning not to go too far, lest he be found guilty of trying to establish a religion in his schools.

This is America in 2017, after all.

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