The wall between church and state
What do Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Agnostic students have in common? More than one might think. Despite the vast differences in their religions, all of these people desire the same thing: respect of their beliefs and a country in which diversity brings people together, not apart. This basic want, at its core, shows that Americans may be more united than they think.
At the creation of this country, 241 years ago, the Founding Fathers pushed for the establishment of a secular entity. Their definition of secularism was that the government, under no circumstances, should impose religion upon citizens or prevent the free practice of it.
Over time, however, their intended meaning constantly undertakes debate. Today, the pledge, recited by people of all religions daily, includes the phrase ‘Under God’ and presidents are sworn into office with a hand on the Bible. Some may view these as violations of the First Amendment.
“During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States were superpowers with influence over other countries. The Soviet Union was anti-religion, and we wanted to show the world that we did support religion, so we added ‘Under God’ to the pledge,” AP Government teacher John Carmichael said.
Most of the time, students don’t have a problem reciting the pledge to honor the country, but some take issue with the religious meaning it takes on when adding the phrase “under God.” Schools can opt to remove those words from their versions of the pledge, since the inclusion of those words can be viewed as exclusionary towards non-Christians.
“It is important that the rights of students who do not want to participate are protected,” the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) said, “a student should not be singled out, rebuked, told they must stand [during the Pledge of Allegiance] or otherwise be penalized for following their freedom of conscience.”
Catholic junior Joseangel Fernandez said that, since the words are included for a historical purpose and believes them to be symbolic of what the nation was founded on, the words should be left. However, he does believe that no one “should be forced to recite any references of [God] if it makes them feel uncomfortable.”
Along with the pledge’s inclusion of ‘Under God’, there is also the issue of politicians placing their hand on a Bible when being sworn into office. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that incoming presidents are to place a hand on the Bible, or any book, during the Oath of Office or in court.
According to the Smithsonian Magazine, it’s a lengthy tradition, started by George Washington, with only a few incoming presidents choosing to break it over the years.
Steven Conn, a professor of History at Miami University, said that he is unsure overall why the Bible has become a part of the Oath of Office, but is likely based on long-standing traditions from before the founding of the country.
The concept of separation of church and state can become controversial in relation to public schools, which are filled with diverse beliefs. It is commonly accepted that, as government entities, public schools should give all students equal rights, including an unbiased view of their individual faiths.
Since Edwards v. Aguillard, in 1987, the teaching of creationism has been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, according to the Legal Information Institute. Although creationism has been ruled against in the U.S., some public schools still violate those principles.
“Public school teachers cannot force students to pray or worship or promote any particular religious view in their teaching, which is why they cannot teach creationism,” Erin Hagen, the Youth Outreach Coordinator for Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) said. “It’s possible that teachers or administrators at public schools may not know that what they’re doing violates the Establishment Clause.”
In 2017, a parent reported that “biogenesis,” i.e. creationism instead of evolution, was being taught in their child’s biology class. This incident took place at the public charter school Ohio Distance and Learning Academy, according to FFRF.
Since the teaching of creationism and other Biblical ideas is unconstitutional, many may wonder why some schools can teach religious curriculum. It all comes down to whether the school is private or public.
“Since [Worthington Christian is] non-public and not considered an extension of the state, we have a greater degree of academic freedom,” Worthington Christian Principal Dr. Buzz Inboden said. “We are permitted to use funds [from Worthington City Schools] to purchase things for studentuse only, but we cannot use what we purchase for religious instruction.”
One other issue of controversy is the topic of prayer. Law protects a student’s right to privately pray to oneself at school or perhaps with a group. However, the controversy surrounds the events in which prayer takes place during school-sponsored activities.
“Over 50 years of Supreme Court, precedent has firmly ruled school prayer or prayer at school events unconstitutional, even if the prayer is non-denominational or supported by a majority,” according to FFRF.
This year, Upper Arlington City Council held invocations at the beginning of their meetings. According to FFRF, their Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert “informed him that, not only is prayer at government meetings unnecessary and divisive, but it is illegal for officials to lead prayers at government meetings.”
Though teachers and other staff have a right to their own beliefs, it is important to keep them separate from instruction. According to the Licensure Code of Professional Conduct for Ohio Educators, unbecoming conduct includes, but is not limited to, the disparaging of a student relating to their religious affiliation. However, it does not specify what is or isn’t allowed regarding religious expression.
“As an academic institution, our job is to teach history, science and literature. If there’s religion in there, as a public school, we are supposed to teach what has been recorded,” Principal Dr. Kathy McFarland said, “however, the public school is not a place for a teacher, administrator or coach to bring their individual religious beliefs into the school-house.”
Students are permitted to miss school, receiving an excused absence, for any religious event, according to the handbook. Additionally, schools may choose to close for dominated holidays. “Public schools may close for religious holidays if large numbers of students and staff will be absent,” according to AUSCS. “Schools should strive to accommodate those students from minority religions by allowing days off for their holidays and permitting make-up work and tests.”
As an attempt to respect the varying beliefs during the winter holiday season, the school takes into account a variety of religions when it comes to holiday-themed school productions.
“We really try to stay away from just the traditional Christian Christmas songs [during the winter choir concert] because that’s not a reflection of who we are here,” McFarland said.
Considering the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” it draws the question as to why, if the government is set up for a society in which all people can freely worship, do questions of religious freedom and acceptance still come up?
“I’m a Muslim and, although I do feel like the government doesn’t truly know what that means sometimes, I don’t feel as attacked as I would feel in other countries,” Treasurer of Face to Face Club Hana Ghazi ’18 said. “America stands for freedom, even if the people of America don’t.”
At one time, a friend of Ghazi learned she was Muslim and wasn’t sure if she was O.K. with continuing being Ghazi’s friend because of her misconceptions regarding Islam. However, Ghazi recognizes that the religion isn’t at fault.
“That kind of behavior has to do more with uncivilized cultures, not a religion. Unfortunately, a lot of discrimination or hate is based simply on misinformation or arrogance from uneducated medias,” Ghazi said.
Karuna Suresh ‘18 lived in India during fifth and sixth grades in which her religion-- Hinduism-was in the majority. She found that Indian culture treated all religions equally.
“We were given school off for Muslim religious holidays, Hindu religious holidays and Christian religious holidays. This brought about an awareness among the students, as they all knew about other religions,” Suresh said.
When she moved back to the United States, Suresh noticed the lack of knowledge Americans have on the religiously-diverse world around them. This is a dismaying observation because, in Ohio alone, 88 percent of adults practice some form of religion, according to Pew Research Center.
“I feel that not enough people are deeply educated about other religions, which is a bit sad, because it really is enriching to learn about different religions and acquiring new views on the world by doing so,” Suresh said.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, there are those who are agnostic and atheists. Although these people are not religious, the First Amendment still protects their right to believe what they wish.
“[People in the past] didn’t seem to want to hear me out about what I believed because it was different from their beliefs,” agnostic senior Sarah Daron said. “I would straight up be told that I was wrong.”
Senior Thomas Fordham, who is also agnostic, feels this attitude is prevalent in current culture.
“There are certainly people who have prejudice against nonreligious people; they’re usually people who believe that you need to be religious to be a moral person which, in my opinion, isn’t true,” Fordham said.
There is this gap between those of different faiths, as people make judgments without full understanding. The majority of the time there is not overt discrimination, but rather a lack of unity.
“[At OOHS] we are welcoming to a certain extent as we do not discriminate based on faith alone, but we must take a step forward from what is occurring now. We don’t discuss Islam, Judaism, Buddhism or Sikhism, so students aren’t aware of them. Yes, we are welcoming to religions, but not with as open arms as we should,” Muslim Rodaba Rahim ‘18 said.
The laws of America provide the basis to create a place where all religions are respected, where one is proud of their beliefs, but the culture needs to work on upholding those laws and being welcoming of different belief systems. America is too diverse a nation with far too many religions to only appeal to one.
Religion might not be taught, but it is supported. Although the culture of America isn’t always educated on other faiths, as previously stated, the try to be as welcoming of varying faiths by encouraging students to get involved in different religious-based clubs if they desire.
One religious based club is the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. FCA is a small fellowship that has Bible studies, speakers and breakfasts to allow Christian students to connect with others when, sometimes, the students may feel as though being religious seems like a bad thing.
“It has a positive impact because it gives students a time to have fellowship with other students like themselves in a time where being religious has a negative connotation,” senior FCA leader Erin Barr said.
Another club called “The Free Thinkers” is in the process of being created for any agnostic, atheist or questioning students. The club was initiated by Lindsey Lenhart ‘18 and will be advised by English teacher Laurie Repko.
“It would be a place for kids who are questioning and unsure of how they feel regarding religion, to be supported by other peers so that they would be comfortable to discuss their views,” Repko said. The main goal of the club is to let students explore their religious beliefs and decide for themselves, in a safe community, if religion does or does not fit into their lives. The club believes that, no matter what someone’s religious beliefs are, a student shouldn’t feel alone.
“I don’t think any of our kids should be picked on for who they are, what they believe or what lifestyle they choose to follow. You should be able to be the person that you are without repercussion,” Repko said.
At Orange, diversity is an enormous thing, as students come from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds. In order to honor this diversity, Orange has over 80 extracurricular activities, 60 of which are clubs for students from all backgrounds. Students can also create their own clubs as long as they have a clear purpose and adviser.
“Face to Face was created with the intention to create a safe haven for the students and encourage friendship, compassion and equality,” Face to Face club President Amy Kadakia ’18 and Vice President Ananya Potlapalli ’19 said.
Face to Face holds numerous events such as the Black History Month assembly, spring fundraisers, murals, movie nights and discussions to promote diversity awareness including religious diversity.
“We have discussions at our meetings discussing religion and we try to include those of all faiths into our club events,” Potlapalli and Ghazi said. Orange High School is a highly diverse school and it works to embrace that diversity by educating the students of Orange.
“There are amazing people of all colors and creeds to be found here. Our school and country has become a representation of the world as a whole,” Fernandez said.