This month a Tennessee teacher reportedly exhibited another example of state intolerance toward student religious expression. By suspending a student for uttering "Bless You" in response to a sneeze and publishing a classroom rule banning the phrase, the teacher used her government role to squash the student's constitutional rights and to impose a sectarian silence that is hostile to religion and the freedom of speech.
The Tennessee school teacher's "Bless You" Banishment constitutes a blatant violation of the Constitution's 1st Amendment. Here, a teacher acting on behalf of the state education system, reportedly imposed a rule that restricted the free exercise and free speech rights of a citizen student.
The United States Supreme Court has granted wide latitude to school officials to administer school discipline and to maintain an effective learning environment. However, school rules and discipline must be reasonable and neutral toward religion and viewpoint.
It is not hard to imagine the circumstances under which an innocent, polite and natural response ("Bless You") to a sneeze in a school classroom can quickly become a repeated, non-innocent and unnatural disruption of class. But the reported facts do not suggest a disruption of the class, but rather a disruption of the teacher's personal and tragic interpretation of the constitution.
As American society becomes increasingly secular and agnostic, the decades long social trend in America to separate religious expression from public life results in increasing examples of public shaming of religious people and their views. Unsurprisingly, the trend now extends to innocuous utterances and phrases such as "Bless You".
Providing constitutional protection for religious speech and viewpoints from hostile state action is essential to the liberty of Americans who continue to practice and speak their beliefs as well as the agnostic who chooses to live free from it.
Since America is founded on the principle that our rights and liberties are "endowed by our Creator" and not merely benevolent licenses from the state, it is also essential to liberty and American Constitutionalism that the state permit and accommodate religious expression. Why?
Effective self-government is rooted in citizens acting charitably toward others, exercising self-control, respecting others' property, and living according to an understanding that fellow citizens rights are equally endowed. These principles and values do not emanate from the state. Rather they are passed by upbringing, tradition and the teachings of religion.
The institutions of family and religion play a critical role in promoting the principles and values that lead to a self-governed society. By preventing the state from obfuscating the manner and expression of religious expression, the 1st Amendment of the Constitution preserves the liberty essential to the health of family and religion as vital institutions.
Three separate institutions, state, family and religion, must be permitted to function co-equally, according to their functional role, for maximum freedom to be enjoyed by all. The state should not rule the family or religion. Religion should not rule the family or the state. The family should not rule the state and the religion, akin to King George.
While agnostics might prefer to extinguish public religious expression, to do so would eventually extinguish the roots of self-government. In a theoretical society where social order is conveyed solely by the democratic enactments of the state, self-government is replaced by maximum government.
Under maximum government, even the agnostic's preferred expression "kazoo-tight" is eventually subject to control. And that is nothing to sneeze at.