Religious Freedom?

National Cathedral-4
The National Cathedral Washington, DC courtesy Martin Gay

Most Americans who are part of mainstream religious groups seldom worry about being able to worship according to their beliefs. But those who are not part of the mainstream may live by convictions that are contrary to established ways of life in the United States.

In fact, since colonial times, some religious groups in North America have set themselves apart from the larger society. Some separated themselves because they believed in theocracy—rule by God through appointed prophets, priests, or other clergy. Some groups separate themselves to live as self-governing communities, maintaining their religious doctrines and practices.

Anabaptists are examples of separatists living in self-governing communities. They are descendants of sixteenth century European religious groups who left Protestant and Catholic churches. They set themselves apart from everything worldly. Divisions occurred among the Anabaptists, however. Some members broke away to follow Jakob Ammann of Switzerland, from whom they took their name: Amish.

The Amish maintained their humble life style when they came to North America and became known as “plain people.” They would not accept new technology as it developed, such as electricity and mechanized farm machinery. According to their beliefs, these worldly conveniences would prevent them from being close to nature where, in their view, God’s presence is felt. Those beliefs are still prevailing.

Amish children usually attend church schools only through eighth grade. Yet in most states, compulsory education laws require children to remain in school until the age of at least sixteen. In the past, states with large Amish populations began to strictly enforce compulsory education laws, and ordered Amish parents to send their children to public schools. But parents refused, citing their religious beliefs.

Some of the most controversial actions took place in 1965. State truant officers in Iowa burst into an Amish school, planning to commandeer the children into a school bus and take them to a public school. But their plan was uncovered by the press, and reporters were on the scene. After newspapers like the Des Moines Register carried the story, Americans across the nation criticized the Iowa school officials. Yet, no changes were made until 1967, when the Iowa legislature revised its laws to allow exemptions to compulsory education because of religious beliefs.

Currently, state laws require children to attend a public or state-accredited private school from the age of six to at least sixteen. However, homeschooling, like Amish education, is an exception. Each state creates its own legal structure for home education.

Amish children have not been alone in entanglement with local, state, or federal law. Decades ago, many state governments required public school children to begin class with a salute to the U.S. flag while pledging allegiance. That angered members of religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and a few religious sects. (They object to this day.)

Walter Gobitas of Minnersville, Pennsylvania, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was one person who publicly objected to the flag salute. He advised his son, fifth-grader William (Billy) and his daughter, Lillian, a seventh grader, not to comply with the required flag ceremony at their public school. Like others of their faith, the flag salute was considered idol worship and against the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”

Billy and Lillian were expelled from the school for not complying with the requirement. Their father then filed a lawsuit, which the Supreme Court eventually heard: Minersville School District v. Gobitis (Gobitas was misspelled in court documents). The decision was 8-1 in the school’s favor. Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote for the majority that although religious dissent was protected under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, “The [U.S.] flag is the symbol of our national unity, transcending all internal differences, however large, within the framework of the Constitution.” In the Court’s opinion, the Gobitas children should salute the flag otherwise their actions could have a negative impact on their classmates’ patriotism.

Meantime, the Gobitas family and Witnesses elsewhere were under attack. Their children were expelled from schools around the country. Families were attacked. A mob in Richwood, West Virginia, led by the chief of police, rounded up Witnesses and forced them to drink castor oil, then paraded them out of town. In Nebraska, a Witness man was dragged away and castrated.

At the same time, people who believed that First Amendment rights were being violated by compulsory flag salute began to protest the High Court’s decision. Some religious leaders, lawyers, and others spoke out in favor of the Witnesses’ right to live according to their religious convictions.

Fortunately, in the 1940s, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed its earlier decision and ever since it has been illegal to require anyone to recite the pledge. However, many state governments and private citizens have tried over the years to reinstate a mandatory ceremony. In 2016, for example, an Indiana  high school teacher, Duane Nickell, who is now retired, informed students in his science class that they could opt out of saying the pledge if that was their and their parents’ choice and right.

Nickell was berated by the principal of the Franklin Central High School, so Nickell contacted the American Humanist Association (AHA), who offered to send a letter to the school officials, strongly supporting Nickell. But Nickell asked them to wait. He was afraid of losing his job. Now retired he has been free to raise awareness about the fact that to compel any U.S. citizen to pledge allegiance to the flag violates the very freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment and what the flag itself stands for.

In July 2017,, the AHA did send a letter to Franklin Central High School. The AHA called on the school to permit teachers to inform students of their free speech rights, including their right not to participate in the pledge. Should the school refuse, the AHA’s legal center would be made available to teachers. According to AHA, part of their mission is to defend civil liberties, advocate for secular governing, and protect one of the most fundamental principles of our democracy: the First Amendment rights to free speech and religious liberty.

And here we are in 2018, still being harangued by federal government officials led by POTUS and private citizens, demanding everyone pledge allegiance to a flag, stand up and salute the U.S. flag while the Star Spangled Banner plays. Religious freedom? Some still must fight for that freedom. As the maxim states: History repeats itself.

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