Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

First Amendment survey

The estimable Professor Friedman (to whom I wish a happy new year) calls our attention to this survey, described in this press release. Those affiliated with the First Amendment Center wring their hands over the percentage of respondents who regard the U.S. as a Christian nation and would permit, for example, teachers to lead prayers. I’d focus on the overwhelming support for the freedom to practice one’s own religion (97% say it’s "essential" or "important") or to practice no religion (89%), though (to be sure) only 56% believe that the freedom of religion applies to all groups and 28% believe that fringe groups shouldn’t enjoy that freedom. 60% of respondents agree that "people should be allowed to say things in public that might be offensive to religious groups," up from 46% in the 2000 survey. Whatever the respondents mean when they say "Christian nation," it’s a far cry from a theocracy. I also suspect that the "fringe groups" that the respondents had in mind are not Buddhists or Hindus.

I’m actually more troubled by other responses. For example, while 64% of the respondents could identify freedom of speech as part of the First Amendment, less than 20% could name any other specific right listed. Furthermore, despite the focus on freedom on speech in this particular snapshot of the public mind, 62% of respondents strongly or mildly agree that the government ought to be able to restrict the amount of money a candidate contributes to his or her own campaign; and 64% agree--strongly or mildly--that the government "should be able to place restrictions on the amount of money a private individual can contribute to someone else’s election campaign." Equality trumps liberty here.

And then there’s this: while 57% of the respondents don’t think that government content regulation of television should be extended to cable and sattelite systems, slightly over 60% strongly or mildly support some version of the fairness doctrine, even applied to newspapers. I can only hope that the explanation for this willingness to support the abrogation of the freedom of the press is connected with the perception, held by roughly 60% of the respondents, that the news media are biased in their reporting of stories and that “[t]he falsifying or making up of stories in the American news media is a widespread problem.” At least then it would be a (mistaken) response to a perceived problem, rather than mere support for a kind of paternalism.

I agree with the folks at the First Amendment Center that we have a long way to go in educating people about their fundamental freedoms. One solution is for ever more people to sign up for this or this, and for other colleges and universities to emulate them.

Discussions - 4 Comments

Why does teachers leading prayers violate the first amendment?

Or must one assume that education is nationalized...

I believe that in a free country, some percentage of people would want their children to get prayers from teachers, and it is not the role of government to thwart that wish (as it currently does). And, I would assert that belief is quite in line with the first amendment right to free exercise.

I believe, diz, that teachers are only forbidden to lead prayers in their official capacity as teachers (that is, while in the classroom). People who want prayer can get it in after school programs (which can be lead by teachers). I think this is for the best. Surely you see the problems of having teachers pray in front of their classrooms? It's impossible for a well-liked teacher to openly display his or her religion in front of the classroom without it being a form of evangelism. All it would take would be one lawsuit from a Protestant couple about their little girl now wanting to pray to Mary "just like Mrs. Henderson does."

Buu, you may or may not be correct about school pray as a public policy issue. But school prayer is NOT a First Amendment issue. The First Amendment says "Congress shall make no law," therefore only Congress can violate the First Amendment. A teacher or a school board could not violate the First Amendment if they wanted to.

The only way school prayer could be a First Amendment issue is if Congress passed a law mandating nationwide school prayer, which would violate the Tenth Amendment.

The First Amendment was not intended to apply to the States, and the 14th Amendment doesn't apply it to the States because the "incorporation doctrine" was not the intent of those who passed the 14th. (The 14th is invalid by the way, because it was passed under duress.)


I think you missed my point.

It seems you, like many others, equate "teacher" with "agent of the government". I do not. There is no reason why we should assume a teacher must be a government employee.

Imagine a world without government for a moment. Parents would still want to send their children to schools. Some parents would want to send their children to schools where they heard prayers. Some schools would meet this need and offer prayers, some schools would meet the needs of parents who did not want their children to hear prayers. Neither school would be inconsistent with the First Amendment.

The first amendment problems arise not because there is "prayer in schools" but because there is "government in schools".

People seem to lose track of an important fact in this debate: in a free society, some people would choose to have prayer in schools.

Apparently, to some, the government's need to run an educational monopoly trumps those people's constitutional right to free exercise of their religion.

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