Public Faith

Article excerpt

Zach's first-grade teacher gave him the big news: "Tomorrow you're going to read in front of the whole class for the first time. Your reward is that you get to read from your favorite book." So the next morning Zach brought in his favorite book--his Beginner's Bible--and announced that the story he had chosen to read to the class was the story of Jacob and Esau.

But his teacher forbade Zach from reciting that story, or anything else from the Beginner's Bible. He couldn't read it aloud, she said. He had to read it to her separately and in private. The Bible, Beginner's or otherwise, has no place in public schools.

Zach was crushed. His mom, an artist who understands the importance of freedom of expression, was angry. She retained my public-interest law firm and we went to war. Soon, Zach became a poster child for religious expression in public. His story was all over the national media. The U.S. Court of Appeals heard his case three times. The case finally settled when we got word that the U.S. Department of Education was issuing new regulations that would cut off federal funding to any school district that suppressed a child's religious expressions in a similar way in the future. Zach had captured people's imaginations.

Zach's predicament is typical of something that happens with less fanfare every day in this country: a public: schoolteacher, a city council member, a judge, or someone else in authority assumes that religious expression is proper only in private, and tries to squelch it in public.

"All right," they say, "if you need to search for the true and the good, you just search away at home, and leave the rest of us out of it. Why do you have to do it in the streets and frighten the horses?"

The answer: Because it's only natural. Religious liberty may begin with the freedom to seek, but it doesn't end there. We aren't a race of hermits, searching grimly for truth and goodness with eyes glued to the ground, ignoring others. We are born with a desire for community. We naturally form families, gather in clans, display our arts, and commemorate the great events of life with rituals. An important part of that is expressing what we believe religiously. Just as the other quintessentially personal aspects of our lives have cultural dimensions, so does our faith. That's why we spend generations building cathedrals, for example. Our natural inclination has always been to express our beliefs openly and within our community. We simply can't live happily without a public culture that reflects and expresses the full scope of our humanity, including our spiritual thirst. …