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Edwards again fails religious freedom defense test

One can rest assured that those who run the Louisiana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union remain on their medications if at least twice a year it launches into some manufactured outrage. They all seem well, courtesy of an ill-advised attempt to curb constitutional religious expression at Bossier Parish School District’s Airline High School that has broader implications in state politics.

The excitable lot in continuing its quest to promote a secularist religion last month fulminated over the penchant of AHS principle Jason Rowland to throw out references to God on his page attached to the school’s web site and that prayer boxes, marked with crosses, sprinkle the campus. It asked for the school to cease and desist in supporting this activity and requested reeducation sessions of school employees.

Perhaps the organization felt emboldened by its apparent success in browbeating Caddo Parish officials earlier this year when it scolded employees at Walnut Hills Elementary-Middle School for posted website material such as a newsletter to parents asking for prayer for exam-taking success and in its publicizing a student-run prayer group. While the community rallied on behalf of the school, the district said it would investigate and since then has mentioned nothing more publicly about the matter. Such references have disappeared from Walnut Hill’s communications.

This episode also apparently had a spillover effect when Ridgewood Middle School removed from its marquee the phrase “In God We Trust.” Area families made of sterner stuff rallied to have that return within days of its disappearance, where jurisprudence clearly supported government endorsement of that phrase (take a look at U.S. coins).

And this resoluteness is shared by BPSD. Rather than roll over, its School Board supported the AHS activities and reaffirmed its support of constitutional religious expression, in essence telling the ACLU to take a hike. A rally held this month attracted hundreds, including Republican gubernatorial candidate Sen. David Vitter.

As in the case of any bully when the intended victim fought back, the ACLU to date has slunk away without protest. While the phrase “God bless you” that set off the ACLU no longer appears on the site, at present Rowland’s page contains a caption of a picture apparently in Arizona stating “God created the Grand Canyon, but he lived in Sedona.”

The ACLU has not responded because jurisprudence rests firmly on the side of the district. As the area’s state Rep. Mike Johnson, a constitutional lawyer expert in First Amendment rights as they deal with religious practice, affirmed, the use of the words “God bless you” by Rowland is an innocuous reference to America’s religious heritage, with that sentiment even part of the Pledge of Allegiance. In fact, in some ways the phrase has become secularized; it and its variants often peal out when somebody sneezes.

Prayer boxes, even with crosses, also do not constitute a constitutional violation, as long as it is a student organization that is behind them. Allowing such boxes circulation around campus injects nothing into a school’s atmosphere beyond religious neutrality and in no way discourages containers maintained by any student organization dedicated to collecting pleas to Allah, petitions to Gaia, curses to be dispensed by Beelzebub, or rants into the ether if of atheist persuasion.

Besides Vitter’s physical support, other Republican candidates for governor Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle and Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne also expressed defenses of religious freedom at AHS. Conspicuously absent was any mention by the major Democrat candidate, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, who holds himself out regularly on his website, in commercials, and in debates as a committed Catholic. It’s not the first time Edwards has shied away from walking the walk: during this year’s legislative session, when Johnson presented a bill to safeguard individuals acting on their belief in traditional marriage against punitive state actions, Edwards copped out by doubting a perfectly reasonable and constitutional bill and voting against it in committee.

It’s odd that a candidate so willing to publicize as part of his campaign his faith seems unwilling to lend his backing to the exercise of religious faith. True character is revealed in what one does, not just what one says. Voters should keep this in mind as they evaluate the candidacy of Edwards.

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