Editorial | Danielsville in the Lions’ Den

| September 26, 2014

madisonGary Wisenbaker, Valdosta Today Editorial Director

It’s one of the most “egregious violations” they have ever encountered in a public school, according to Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Dan Barker.

The American Humanist Association fumed that it’s a “clear violation” of the law and the school districts and officials can be sued under federal law and, moreover, the people placing the monument may be “liable in their individual capacities.” So take that.

What could possibly cause such consternation in Danielsville, Georgia, population 560, tucked away just 18 miles northeast of Athens, Georgia, home of the University of Georgia? A photograph of a cross in urine? A painting of a desecrated Virgin Mary?

Why no, it’s none other than a monument donated and placed at the local high school’s new field house to inspire the football team and its patrons. To make matters worse, the team has appropriated the habit of touching it as they charge past it on to the field.

The highly offensive inspirational language, as might be suspected, comes from the Bible: Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me”) and Romans 8:31 (“If God be for us who can be against us?”).

It appears that the Wisconsin-based FFRF, which boasts a national membership of 21,500, four hundred of which are found in Georgia, was sicced on the local school board by a Madison County resident, one of the 400. It is unclear how the HHA, founded in 1941 with around 24,000 members, got on the trail but they did, and with a vengeance at that. Could be that the FFRF is some sort of sub-group of the HHA (their membership numbers seem to coincide) and so there’s a lot of cross pollination. Who knows.

The odd thing about the story is that it does not appear that any of the football team members, their parents, teachers, administrators or any of the team’s patrons complained. Just a lone “Madison County resident”. Interesting.

If the school board does not back down, there will be law suits benefiting only the lawyers. The litigation certainly will not benefit the team, coaches, parents or community.

Much has happened since the United States Supreme Court Engle v. Vitale decision in 1962, the decision that took prayer out of public schools, and little of it good. Prayers came out of the classroom, out of the competition arenas, out of graduation programs, manger scenes off of public squares, Ten Commandment displays out of courthouses, and more.

The Engle case and its progeny worked an injustice on a country under a Constitution written by intellectual giants who were either Christian or had a profound belief in God. For this to happen, the Supreme Court had to do an extreme makeover on the Establishment Clause, the rather simple and straightforward language in the Bill of Rights that proscribes Congress from putting one religion or creed over another: “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibit the full exercise thereof.”

The idea was an early form of “live and let live”. There would be no state church as there had been in England where those found not towing the line might well end up towing the end of a rope. There was no intention to remove religion from the public discourse.

Today, however, the Establishment Clause has been upended as those who wish to fully exercise their religion are actually barred by the state from doing so to accommodate those who seek a freedom from religion (whatever that is). And it is the paranoia of the latter that has led to a restriction of the exercise of religious beliefs, the very result the Establishment Clause sought to avoid.

And in a larger Constitutional perspective, it is just this kind of tyranny of the minority that our form of government, a democracy within a republic, also sought to avoid.

Tiny Danielsville itself is now the focal point of egregious acts of interference over a monument created and erected by non-public funds. The inscription neither puts nor forces any religion over another. The fact that it sits on public property does not change that fact. Touching it or reading it is clearly voluntary.

Can reading merely religiously oriented words in a public place constitute establishing a religion? Probably not. Can preventing someone from reading those same words constitute a restriction of the right to exercise a religious belief? Maybe so.

Maybe Danielsville, like Tom Petty, “won’t back down”. The country will be all the better for it.

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2 Comments on "Editorial | Danielsville in the Lions’ Den"

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  1. Brian Westley says:

    “Can reading merely religiously oriented words in a public place constitute establishing a religion? Probably not.”

    But that isn’t the standard. The standard is “an establishment of religion,” and the courts have ruled for decades that having public schools promote religion violates the religious rights of students.

    “Can preventing someone from reading those same words constitute a restriction of the right to exercise a religious belief? Maybe so.”

    RIDICULOUS. Nobody has a RIGHT to erect religious monuments at a public school. If there was such an impractical right, everyone could put up monuments on school grounds — including atheists.

    “Maybe Danielsville, like Tom Petty, “won’t back down”. The country will be all the better for it.”

    No, Danialsville will be out tens of thousands of dollars if they don’t back down. They will not only lose a lawsuit, they would likely have to pay the court costs of the plaintiff.

    And your idea of what’s better for the country is called a violation of religious freedom.

  2. allison says:

    And if a Muslim group donated a monument to the school bearing verses from the Koran, I suppose you wouldn’t complain, Gary? Of course you would – you want a privileged position for your religion, not for other people’s religion. Legal battles of this nature have been fought again and again, and invariably such religious intrusions have been ruled unconstitutional (after wasting thousands or millions of dollars of taxpayer money). Remove the monument – it does not belong at a public school. Place it at your church, if you’re so fond of it.