Lariat Letters: Column takes freedom from religion goals out of context

Danny Huizinga’s Sept.10 guest column titled “Viewpoint: Freedom from religion groups not helping kids” belittles Orange County Public Schools’ (Fla.) decision to eliminate football chaplains at the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s request. I’m the foundation attorney who showed the school system that their chaplains were unconstitutional.

Unfortunately, Huizinga’s column showed little regard for the facts or law. Some mistakes are obvious. For instance, the title did not change from “chaplain” to “life coach.” The chaplaincy was abolished. Danny bemoans a photo we posted of former chaplain Troy Schmidt trying to make “him look bad,” but Schmidt proudly displays the same photo on his own website.

Some mistakes were less obvious.

Danny claims the foundation “intervene[s] in public schools across the country, regardless of whether there were any complaints.” The foundation receives more than 2,500 complaints every year. We don’t look for complaints; they come to us. That number increases as people de-convert. One third of people under 30 consider themselves nonreligious. There are more atheists and agnostics than Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists combined. And yes, we did have an Orange County complaint.

Huizinga claims that we “grossly misrepresented the truth” by writing “the First Amendment does not give you the right to enter into public schools and force your religion onto other people’s children.” But as the former chaplain’s interview shows, Schmidt thinks the First Amendment gives him that right. He’s wrong. And we were right to point it out.

Perhaps the chaplain issue should be decided by determining what is best for the children as Huizinga suggests. But, who knows best, Huizinga and the chaplains or the children’s parents? Parents can send their children to Sunday school if they want their child to have religious education. Public schools are not for religious indoctrination.

Danny tells us “the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ first gained prominent legal power in 1947…,” that these are “not … the Constitution’s words.” Not quite. The language is a metaphor, as is “fair trial,” which is not in the Constitution either. But the Supreme Court adopted the phrase nearly 70 years earlier, in 1878, Reynolds v. U.S., quoting Jefferson’s 1802 “wall of separation” letter. Rhode Island founder Roger Williams wrote of a “wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world” in 1644. Presidents from Jefferson to Madison to Tyler to JFK all used separation language.

Finally, Huizinga equates government neutrality with promoting atheism. This is perhaps the biggest misunderstanding about the First Amendment We did not want schools “promoting nontheism in schools.” We want schools to remain neutral on religion.
Neutrality is not atheism. Imagine a public school football coach, a government employee, promoting nontheism: “Kids, there is no god and religion is bad.” Here’s the coach, still a government employee, acting with constitutionally mandated neutrality: “Kids, go out there an do your best.”

Surely Huizinga can understand this difference? If not, perhaps he better keep his pen to himself.

– Andrew L. Seidel,
Attorney for Freedom From Religion Foundation Inc.