Nearly a year after a court fined a South Carolina school district $456,000 for including prayers and a hymn in a graduation ceremony, Greenville County School District has agreed to pay $187,000. Their settlement concludes many months of legal negotiations with the American Humanist Association, to whom the settlement was payable.
The original lawsuit against the school was filed in 2013 following a graduation ceremony where several students mentioned God in their speeches and prayed, and a Christian hymn was sung. An atheist family at the ceremony took offense and complained, and their complaint eventually reached the ears of the American Humanist Association (AHA), an aggressive anti-faith organisation who have been militantly campaigning and litigating against public expressions of Christianity in America for many years. The AHA filed a lawsuit against the school district, claiming that the graduation ceremony breached the American Constitution.
Sadly, the American Humanist Association is legally correct. Public prayer in schools has been illegal and unconstitutional in America since a U.S Supreme Court decision in1962 declared that public prayer in schools violates the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Accordingly, in July 2019, District Court Judge Bruce Hendricks issued an injunction against the Greenville County School District, stating:
“The district also shall not include an obviously religious piece of music as part of the official program for a graduation ceremony. The district and/or school officials shall not encourage, promote, advance, endorse, or participate in causing prayers during any graduation ceremony.”
This case is not unusual. Since the 1962 Supreme Court decision, an escalating anti-Christian campaign has been waged by atheist and humanist groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) and the American Humanist Association (AHA), resulting in many successful prosecutions and heavy fines.
The increase in anti-religious sentiment within America and other Western nations is not limited to these large humanist organisations. The 1962 outlawing of public expressions of faith has also empowered individuals to engage in what can only be described as state-sanctioned anti-religious bullying. For instance, in the lead up to Easter last year, William McLeod, a 9-year-old Utah boy was forced to remove the ash in the shape of a cross from his forehead, which he wore to school on Ash Wednesday. Similarly, Malak Hijaz, a 16-year-old Muslim girl, recently had her hijab repeatedly ripped from her head and was physically attacked by other school students, but the School Principal refused to intervene or condemn the bullying.
And these instances are just the tip of the iceberg. A wave of anti-religious bullying is sweeping the Western world. This is what prompted President Trump to host a meeting of concerned individuals in his Oval Office in July this year, to commemorate National Religious Freedom Day. At the meeting, the President commented on “this terrible suppression” of religious expression, which he described as “totally unacceptable.” While Trump did not propose specific changes to existing laws, throughout his presidency he consistently affirmed that individuals, including teachers and students, should be able to practice their First Amendment religious rights without fear of discrimination.
Leaving aside the legal issues, what deeply disturbs me is the rise of what I refer to as ‘Hair-Trigger Offense’ in our society. People are now pre-wired to instantly react in outrage the moment they hear or see anything that doesn’t align with their own narrow belief system. We now live in a society where people are predisposed to take violent offense at the drop of a hat, and often the resulting outrage is totally out of proportion to the supposed offense. William McLeod, the 9-year-old boy who had the ash forcibly removed from his forehead, (and who was one of those subsequently invited to the Oval Office by President Trump), was not proselytizing in having his forehead smeared with ash. He was not forcing his beliefs on anyone else. He was not hurting anyone or infringing the rights of others to NOT believe as he did. He was simply practicing his faith and quietly reverencing his God. Yet those around him, empowered and embrazened by the current anti-religious movement, swooped down upon him in a cowardly act of bullying, refusing to allow even a symbol of his beliefs to exist in their presence.
How have we reached this point, where this kind of religious bullying is sanctioned? Are atheists truly that insecure that they can’t tolerate even the smallest symbol that expresses an alternate viewpoint? Apparently, they are. It appears that a growing portion of society are so puerile, they will no longer tolerate the expression of any viewpoint that differs from their own.
As a Christian, I constantly come across expressions of beliefs and morality that differ from my own, but I don’t protest or get litigious about it. I am not offended by expressions of atheism. I disagree with the atheist viewpoint, but I strongly believe in their right to hold that view. I don’t go through life insisting that nothing can be said or done in my presence that contradicts my worldview. To do so would be infantile.
The First Amendment of the American Constitution is meant to protect religious freedom. It is meant to protect the rights of individuals to hold to whatever religious viewpoint they wish, and to practice it without fear of discrimination. It is meant to protect individuals from enforced conformity to a single religious (or anti-religious) viewpoint. Yet, somehow, it has now been twisted to enforce public silence upon those with religious beliefs. The intention of the First Amendment is to protect the rights of everyone to believe what they want, and to protect against aggressive proselytizing, yet it is now being utilized as a weapon to promote an aggressive atheist agenda and to marginalise the expression of religious faith.
The key section of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights 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 people peacefully to assemble …”
How can this wonderful affirmation of religious freedom possibly be construed to outlaw prayer in schools and restrict the peaceful expression of personal faith? The forefathers who drafted this Amendment must be rolling over in their graves. Quite frankly, what we are now witnessing is ‘First Amendment madness’.
Kevin Simington (B.Th. Dip. Min.) is a theologian, apologist and social commentator. He is the author of 12 books, and his latest, “7 Reasons to Believe”, is now available. Connect with Kevin on Facebook or his SmartFaith Blog.