Dwight Anderson, superintendent of the Comstock Park public school district, has forbidden a high school choir from singing a hymn at next week's graduation ceremony in honor of a fellow choir member, Nick Szymanski, who died in an accident last October. The banned hymn is the Lord's Prayer, which was a favorite of Szymanski's. The choir has previously performed the hymn at a school event in commemoration of Szymanski, and the graduation ceremony is in fact being held at a church. But Anderson has now decided that the hymn could possibly offend someone attending the graduation ceremony who might deem it as an attempt by the school to proselytize the Christian religion. So he ordered it tossed into the dumper.
A person who genuinely believed that the government was oppressing him by a group of teenagers singing the Lord's Prayer in his presence would be clinically insane. That obvious fact never seemed to enter into Anderson's decision. More likely Anderson was running scared from the possibility of pathetic troublemakers who like to invent offenses to themselves whenever they can, even though the chance of such people attending next week's graduation ceremony is a slim one. Why what can or cannot be uttered at a public event must be determined by the lowest common denominator of tolerance for diverse beliefs in inexplicable. What lesson in civics is being taught to our students by a school superintendent who censors the expression of a wholesome and decent petition for protection from evil and stength to do good because it might possibly disgruntle a crank in the audience? So much for robust public discourse.
Anderson rationalized his cowardice by telling the Grand Rapids Press that he banned the hymn because, after consulting with the school district's lawyers, "[W]e are going to abide by the law." Fine, except for one small thing. There is no law to abide by. Instead there is patchwork of arbitrary court decisions conflicting with each other. So, the Comstock Park public school superintendent should come clean with us. If he silenced the choir because he doesn't want the hassle of getting into a lawsuit filed by some whack job, then say so. If he thinks it really is an affront to religious liberty to allow the Lord's Prayer to be sung at a graduation ceremony, then say so. But laying it off on the district's lawyers is just weaselly.
Meanwhile, we all need to take a deep breath and consider how we have let the courts and our public officials turn the First Amendment on its head. Freedom of religion is NOT, as the libertarians are wont to say, freedom from religion. Just as freedom of the press keeps the government out of the media's business and not the media out of the government's business, what the First Amendment guarantees is that the exercise of religion will be free of the government, not that the government will be free of religion. Moreover, it certainly does not shield one citizen upon entering the public square from exposure to the religious expressions of another. And that works both ways, whether the offended citizen is an atheist who cannot countenance statements of faith in his presence or a devout believer who cannot tolerate that which he thinks is inimical to his religion -- as we had to say about the absurd banning of Halloween at a Rockford public school last year.
In short, we need to stop accommodating the hypersensitivity of those who wish the outside world would never put before them any idea, word, or deed contrary to their beliefs. If anything is inimical to genuine independence of thought and toleration of opposing views, allowing ourselves to be silenced lest we might possibly offend someone somehow will wreck these virtues vital to a democratic society.