Normally during the holiday season, legal challenges to the separation of church and state have to do with city halls with a nativity scene or religious-based Christmas music being performed at a public school.
But this year the debate in Georgia is on a different front. The group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has threatened to file a lawsuit against Cherokee County school officials unless they stop using a church facility for graduation ceremonies.
The executive director of the group says such litigation would not be a first for the organization, which previously has fought similar battles in Connecticut and Wisconsin, losing one lawsuit and winning the other. Both decisions are under appeal.
AUSCS argues that holding a public school graduation in a church violates the line of separation between government and religion as promised by the U.S. Constitution.
Like the Bible, the Constitution is subject to different interpretations. On this particular issue, our interpretation is that those challenging the use of religious buildings as an appropriate site for school events should find weightier matters for debate.
The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution says this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ... “
Those 16 words have spawned millions of others as the nation’s courts have tried to define exactly where the line should be drawn between the role of government and that of religious belief.
The original intent seems to be fairly clear. The nation’s founding fathers thought it important that there not be a government-sanctioned religion imposed upon the people, and conversely that the people should be free to exercise their own religious beliefs without fear of government intervention.
For school systems, the use of large church facilities is often a very practical way of allowing big crowds of people to attend graduation.
Does the fact that a religious icon hanging on a wall might make someone uncomfortable create an unconstitutional conflict?
We don’t think so.
By the same token, we don’t believe that a nativity scene sitting on the lawn of a city hall represents an effort by the government to force a particular religion upon the people; nor does a menorah display at a public library; nor the sounds of traditional Christmas carols being performed in the lobby of a county courthouse.
There is a difference between acknowledging the existence of a set of religious beliefs and an institutional effort by the government to force those beliefs upon the people it governs.
We suspect that those who have seen loved ones die in the fight for religious freedom under a government controlled theocracy elsewhere in the world would laugh at the issues that concern the AUSCS and some of the nation’s jurist.
Sometimes a building is just a building. And sometimes groups such as the AUSCS engage in a controversial cause in order to justify their own existence rather than out of any need to right a social wrong.