This morning, my cell phone started buzzing about ten minutes before my alarm was set to go off. Groggy-eyed, I reached over and snatched it from my night stand. While usually I'm rather irritated by the idea of waking up even a moment too soon, I couldn't help but smile when I read the text message sent by one of my favorite friends.
Plain and simple it read: Happy Constitution Day!!
I love Constitution Day. I already sent my friends holiday-themed e-cards and proudly carry around a pocket-sized Constitution in my messenger bag. To me, the Constitution is just awe-inspiring. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, alongside a number of their revolutionary brothers and sisters, laid the foundation for a new experiment in government through a document that maintains its relevance and importance centuries later; almost nothing could be more beautiful.
I say "almost" because it's so disappointing to me how frequently our lawmakers seem to lose sight of the tenets of this most important founding document. Take, for example, the First Amendment to our Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...."
Those words mean simply this: individuals are free to practice their faith(s) – or not -- but government can't meddle with religious matters. While it seems pretty straightforward to me, it's apparently less than clear to more than 60 members of the 111th U.S. Congress.
On Monday, Reps. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.), Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) and 57 of their colleagues sent a letter to Pace High School in Santa Rosa, Fla., addressed jointly to Principal Frank Lay and the school's athletic director, Robert Freeman.
Lay and Freeman are the two men who have been recently charged with criminal contempt for violating a federal court order prohibiting Santa Rosa County school officials from promoting religion at school-sponsored events.
About a year ago, on behalf of two Pace High School students, the ACLU sued the school district alleging that some school officials – agents of the government --not only invited prayer into the classrooms, but read aloud from the Bible and openly discussed church attendance with students. Siding with the students, the court prohibited further government-sponsored religious activity from taking place at Pace.
Less than two weeks later, the court injunction was violated when Lay asked Freeman to lead the audience of a school personnel and booster club luncheon in an invocational prayer.
The court is expected to hear testimony about the incident today, and while the students have the ACLU and the U.S. Constitution on their side, Lay and Freeman have the support of a substantial chunk of the U.S. Congress.
The letter to the two defendants offers "prayer and support," stating that "the tradition of offering prayer in America has become so interwoven into our nation's spiritual heritage, that to charge someone criminally for engaging in such an innocent practice would astonish the men who founded this country on religious liberty."
Which founders would it astonish to know that our federal courts have held that government may not sponsor religious indoctrination? Would Madison be offended to know that government officials are prohibited from proselytizing young, malleable minds about religions their parents may reject? I think not.
So, while Rep. Miller and his friends may be making a big stink about the court "trampling" the equal protection rights of school employees and twisting the facts to argue that this case brings with it "the potential for the criminalization of prayer," we must remember that the court is merely trying to celebrate this year's Constitution Day by upholding the Constitution and the rule of law.
Our Constitution mandates a clear separation between church and state, and our Constitution guarantees religious neutrality in our public schools. If school officials and other government officials are allowed to openly defy court orders banning unconstitutional activities, we're heading down the slippery slope to anarchy.
I hope that citizens, and government officials alike, take a moment on this Constitution Day holiday to truly reflect upon the vision of our framers and to reaffirm their commitment to continue to strive for a more perfect union.
[We will keep you posted, right here, about the court's decision as soon as the news breaks.]
Update: Yesterday afternoon, U.S. District Court Judge M. Casey Rodgers of Pensacola, Fla., held that Principal Frank Lay and Athletic Director Robert Freeman did not violate their court-ordered agreement with the ACLU barring them from promoting prayer at public school events. Judge Rodgers opined that the prayer provided at the luncheon was spontaneous and offered with seemingly no intent to violate the court order.
According to the Northwest Florida Daily News, Judge Rodgers also addressed the misinformation about the case being circulated by the religious right and right-wing media.
"The rule of law is what governs...(It's) the foundation for not just our order, but for our liberties," Rodgers told the packed courtroom. "To suggest taht the court has criminalized prayer...is offensive and insulting."
"The court's duty is to apply the law, not public opinion, no matter how popular."