In April, Reach America, an organization headed by entrepreneur Gary Brown, posted a video on youtube: The Thaw. It languished until a story about it in the Huffington Post, after which it briefly went viral. There have been many rebuttals to it, almost all as videos on youtube. Its time in the public eye seems to have faded, and it almost seems pointless, at this juncture, to do a more rigorous critique . . . except that it encapsulates, in a series of bite-sized claims, the playbook of the “Christians are oppressed in America” narrative which remains so popular. So this is one of a series of articles to be used as a guide in putting that narrative into context wherever it is encountered.
For this article we will focus on claims made in The Thaw about the law; other articles will deal with broader cultural claims. The source material is the video itself (quotations indicated in bold type), a series of explanatory articles by the video’s creator, Gary Brown (indicated in italic type), and the relevant Supreme Court rulings The Thaw is making claims about.
Before beginning, a brief comment about an irony: The Thaw, which relies on religious and patriotic themes, uses throughout a picture which violates Title 4, section 8 of the US Code. That law includes: “(b) The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.” And yet, The Thaw repeatedly includes a shot of the American flag on the ground, with a block of melting ice and other detritus on top of it.
Now, to quotations from The Thaw: “In 1962, the Supreme Court ruled that prayer was unconstitutional in schools.”
In his blog, Mr. Brown expands on that claim: “The problem this Court had wasn’t state-mandated coercion, but the simple presence of prayer in the public school system. The Court recognized that the prayer in question was voluntary and student-led. The Engel decision was an attack on any kind of prayer – even voluntary, student-led prayer.”
That is false in several ways. First, the prayer was not voluntary. It was required by the school board. From the Court opinion:
“The respondent Board of Education of Union Free School District No. 9, New Hyde Park, New York, acting in its official capacity under state law, directed the School District's principal to cause the following prayer to be said aloud by each class in the presence of a teacher at the beginning of each school day: ‘Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.’”
It was “voluntary” only in the limited sense that the person reading it had volunteered to do so; that does not change the fact that the prayer reading was required by the Board.
So no, it was not “an attack on any kind of prayer – even voluntary, student-led prayer.” That claim is false. It was an attack on prayer mandated by the government, regardless of who said it. Again, from the decision of the court:
“It is neither sacrilegious nor antireligious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves and to those the people choose to look to for religious guidance.”
Another quotation from The Thaw: “In 1963 the courts ruled the Bible unconstitutional, saying that if the Ten Commandments were read in school, that students might feel inclined to follow them.”
Again, this is false in several ways. For openers, the case being referred to had nothing to do with the Ten Commandments. It was about reading Bible verses. Mr. Brown’s blog contains his explanation:
“The state of Pennsylvania had a similar policy as the State of New York [in Engle]. The policy stated that each school day would be opened by the reading of the Bible. Like the previous case, participation was voluntary and student-led. There was to be no comments made or questions asked – only the reading of the Bible would be permitted. Again, coercion was never proven in this case.. . . The argument that was made by the Court is that the school setting is no place for religious activity. If these activities are to occur it should be in the home, church, or private school.”
The “explanation” simply compounds the falsehoods. Mr. Brown says participation was “voluntary”, leaving out the part that it was required by law: Again, as stated by the Court:
“The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, by law, 24 Pa.Stat. § 15-1516, as amended, Pub.Law 1928 (Supp. 1960) Dec. 17, 1959, requires that
“At least ten verses from the Holy Bible shall be read, without comment, at the opening of each public school on each school day. Any child shall be excused from such Bible reading, or attending such Bible reading, upon the written request of his parent or guardian.”
There is nothing voluntary about that reading (again, with the limited exception that the person doing the reading is a volunteer.) And although Mr. Brown claims that “coercion was never proven in this case”, the trial court found, and the Supreme Court agreed, that:
“The trial court, in striking down the practices and the statute requiring them, made specific findings of fact that the children's attendance at Abington Senior High School is compulsory, and that the practice of reading 10 verses from the Bible is also compelled by law. The fact that some pupils, or, theoretically, all pupils, might be excused from attendance at the exercises does not mitigate the obligatory nature of the ceremony, for . . . Section 1516 . . . unequivocally requires the exercises to be held every school day in every school in the Commonwealth. The exercises are held in the school buildings, and perforce are conducted by and under the authority of the local school authorities, and during school sessions. Since the statute requires the reading of the "Holy Bible," a Christian document, the practice . . . prefers the Christian religion. The record demonstrates that it was the intention of . . . the Commonwealth . . . to introduce a religious ceremony into the public schools of the Commonwealth.”
Mr. Brown would have us believe that, “The argument that was made by the Court is that the school setting is no place for religious activity. . . ” But that is not what the Court said. His statement is false. The real finding of the Court, as to why they struck down the procedure:
“Applying the Establishment Clause principles to the cases at bar, we find that the States are requiring the selection and reading at the opening of the school day of verses from the Holy Bible and the recitation of the Lord's Prayer by the students in unison. These exercises are prescribed as part of the curricular activities of students who are required by law to attend school. They are held in the school buildings under the supervision and with the participation of teachers employed in those schools. . . . . The trial court in No. 142 has found that such an opening exercise is a religious ceremony, and was intended by the State to be so. We agree with the trial court's finding as to the religious character of the exercises. Given that finding, the exercises and the law requiring them are in violation of the Establishment Clause.”
Mr Brown also makes a further false claim about the findings of the Court: “If these activities are to occur it should be in the home, church, or private school.” Again, Mr. Brown’s claim is false. That is not at all what the Court said:
“The place of religion in our society is an exalted one, achieved through a long tradition of reliance on the home, the church and the inviolable citadel of the individual heart and mind. We have come to recognize through bitter experience that it is not within the power of government to invade that citadel, whether its purpose or effect be to aid or oppose, to advance or retard. In the relationship between man and religion, the State is firmly committed to a position of neutrality.”
In his blog, Mr. Brown makes another claim: “Without a doubt, in this case the Court struck down the official use of the Bible in public education.” That is false. The Court ruling distinguished – as they all do - between religious exercised mandated by the government, and other uses of the Bible:
“In addition, it might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”
Let’s revisit the “Ten Commandments” statement in The Thaw. “In 1963 the courts ruled the Bible unconstitutional, saying that if the Ten Commandments were read in school, that students might feel inclined to follow them.”
Now that we know (and Mr. Brown acknowledges in his blog) that the 1963 case had nothing to do with the Ten Commandments. But there was a case that did: Stone v. Graham. The quotation above is cleverly written to imply that the reason the Court ruled against the Ten Commandments was because “students might feel inclined to follow them.” True, the Court does recognize that it may have that effect, which it acknowledges may be desirable, certainly not a reason to rule against their posting. The inference is false; that’s not the reason.
In his blog, Mr. Brown claims:
“In 1980, Stone vs Graham, the Court ruled it unconstitutional for students to view the Ten Commandments while at school.”
That is also false. It is, again, a refusal to recognize the distinction always made by the court about state sponsorship of religion. Here is, in fact, what the Court said on both issues:
“This is not a case in which the Ten Commandments are integrated into the school curriculum, where the Bible may constitutionally be used in an appropriate study of history, civilization, ethics, comparative religion, or the like . . . . Posting of religious texts on the wall serves no such educational function. If the posted copies of the Ten Commandments are to have any effect at all, it will be to induce the schoolchildren to read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and obey, the Commandments. However desirable this might be as a matter of private devotion, it is not a permissible state objective under the Establishment Clause.”
This article has shown a consistent pattern of flagrant misstatement of the law, misleading statements, and refusal to acknowledge crucial distinctions between truly private actions and actions sponsored by the state. These are part of the techniques used by the “Oppressed Christians in America” industry to rally supporters (and, incidentally, money) to their cause.