CHS students take honors in annual essay contest Understanding the First Amendment

Sharon Anderson

Nature Coast Chapter 65 of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) has selected the winners of this year’s essay contest for Citrus County public high school juniors and seniors, on the topic of why the First Amendment principle establishing the wall between church and state is so vital to our country today.

First prize, $300 in scholarship money, went to Citrus High School senior Abby Blocker, and second prize, $150, was awarded to CHS junior Grace Tyler.

The separation of church and state, established by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, delineates between the freedom to practice religion in the U.S. and where the

ever-expanding secular government’s hand gets slapped.

Thomas Jefferson is credited with erecting the “wall” of separation when, in 1779, he penned the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which was included in the U.S. Constitution on Jan. 16, 1786, said Nature Coast Chapter 65 President Sid Rose.

Nature Coast Chapter 65 has existed for more than 20 years. Rose and his wife, Sylvia, have been involved locally for about 12 years. The essay contest is in its fourth year.

“The first year we did this, in 2014, we only had one entry,” said Sylvia Rose, Chapter 65’s treasurer. “But it was an excellent essay.” Last year, she said, there were a whopping 59 entries and this year there were only 17.

“We’re not sure why, but we had some very good ones this year so we were not disappointed,” she said.

For the past 70 years AU, a nonpartisan, 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C., has been vigorously dedicated to guarding the wall between church and state.

The Americans United for Separation of Church and State website, at www.AU.org, states that AU was founded nationally in 1947 by a broad coalition of religious, educational and civic leaders and works in the courts, the U.S. Congress, state legislatures and at the White House, as well as in the arena of public opinion.

“We envision an America where everyone can freely choose a faith and support it voluntarily, or follow no religious or spiritual path at all, and where the government does not promote religion over nonreligion or favor one faith over another,” the website reads.

“It’s about believers and nonbelievers being respected,” said Sylvia Rose. “Our country was founded on the basis of freedom, including religious freedom. It doesn’t mean we’re against religion.”

“Once we’re aware of a violation of separation of church and state in our area, we refer the matter to the legal department of the AU headquarters in Washington, D.C.,” Sid Rose said.

The integrity of the separation has seen many a test over the past 230 years. The AU website states that, “Since the early 1960s, Americans United has successfully opposed every proposed constitutional amendment designed to reintroduce official prayer and other forms of mandated worship in public schools.”

AU has also opposed attempts to introduce “intelligent design” creationism into public school science classes.

Chapter 65 is always seeking new members, Sylvia Rose said, and meets at the Lakes Region Library, at 1511 Druid Road in Inverness, at

4 p.m. the third Tuesday monthy, excluding July, August and September.

Winners of this year’s essay contest were on hand to receive their scholarships at the May 16 AU meeting.

Here are the winning essays:

“Why the First Amendment Principle of Church and State is Vital to our Country Today”

First place, Abby Blocker, grade 12, Citrus High School

Since America was first discovered by Europeans in 1492, it has been considered the land of opportunity. This opportunity comes from the freedom that America has and always will offer. An important part of this freedom comes from our freedom of religion. Education and equality are two values that America sponsors deeply, and the freedom of religion keeps these two values close to home.

Education is a keystone in our land of the free. The American dream is what many come to the US for, and education is what continues to make our country so successful. Education in America should have the intent to build up and provide fair opportunity for our children, and that is why religion should be kept out of it. Religion can cloud what teachers are allowed to teach, and change what the focus of education is all about. Education is about giving people the tools and information, so that they may come to conclusions for themselves; religion draws the conclusions for them. Take science, for example. Many school districts, especially in conservative states, want creationism to be taught or at least included in science curriculum. Creationism teaches that a “God” created humans and other organisms, and that is how we appeared on Earth. Scientists have researched and strongly believe in another theory, called evolution, that is much more fact-based and has been studied more in-depth. In the case of Edwards v Aquillard, it was deemed unconstitutional to teach creationism in science, which helped schools, considerably conservative state schools, to make the move to more fact-based teachings instead of religious beliefs. It is not wrong to believe one theory over the other, but the fact that one theory is based on religion is unfair because public education is a government service and the government should not be biased for or against any religion. Earlier court rulings such as Epperson v Arkansas show that even in a time where this issue in school was not as pressing, the Supreme Court has always upheld the first amendment in freedom of religion when it comes to education. In a country where education is not polluted by religious agendas, students are free to learn facts and theories and make their own ideas, instead of being distracted by different political agendas.

Equality is another core value in our homeland. It was important to the founding fathers that “all men are created equal,” so not only did this include different races and nationalities, but to different religious followers as well. If our country were to have a national religion, it would discriminate against any other religion that tried to come here. Sound familiar? One of the main reasons the Pilgrims came to this land on the Mayflower was to be able to practice their own religion without being persecuted. The Quakers in Pennsylvania continued this tradition by accepting all types of people and religion in their colony, and Maryland followed suit with their Act of Toleration. Even in days as early as the 1700s, the basis of America knew to keep the characteristic of freedom of religion close to heart. By not choosing one religion, we do not discriminate against others. Imagine if instead of being able to pray and put nativities up in school, we had to bow to Mecca and pork was not served in school lunches? People in today’s society wouldn’t be too keen on this idea. The idea of the freedom of religion is not to hurt anyone’s religion, but instead, to make it fair to all religions. Fairness and equality are important factors in the formation of America, and have a strong purpose in the protection of our society.

Second place Grace Tyler, grade 11, Citrus High School

The First Amendment grants multiple freedoms, but the principle of separation is key to our country’s success and distinguishes us from other countries today. As an American, I understand my right to believe or not to believe in the religion of my choice. Many Americans forget how fortunate they are to have religious freedom, and that there are millions of people around the world without the right to choose what they believe in. Americans must recognize and appreciate this precious right. This crucial doctrine must be protected at all costs. If the people of the United States allow the wall between church and state to crumble, then they are forfeiting to the government their most personal freedoms.

Religion is too personal to have the government entwined with its institutions. The government cannot be allowed to dictate the very beliefs that make a person who they are. For example, if a student wishes to pray before their meal, no one can impede on their right to do so, and vice versa, if a student does not wish to do anything before their meal, they are free to proceed. If a citizen would like to donate their personal assets to a religious organization on their own account, they have the right to do that. On the other hand, the government cannot require citizens to fund religious institutions, or spend tax payer money to support them. Protecting both sides of every issue is important in separating church and state, because we cannot protect one religion or one believer and not another because that would denounce the entire principle. Church and state issues should remain non-partisan. When political parties try to push their agendas, it can cause circumvention by politicians attempting to cut corners to please their party. Resolving to keep church and state issues neutral is important to our country’s balance; however, government entanglement in religious affairs would dangerously tip the scales.

There are cases throughout America’s history in which the lines between church and state have been blurred. The Constitution, with the assistance of diligent citizens, has prevailed time and time again in protecting every religion, person, personal belief, and keeping the line separating church and state clear. People have terminated actions such as government funding to religious schools, laws mandating prayer in school, and discrimination of certain religions. Many of these breakthroughs were accomplished by the organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Americans United was founded in 1947 to combat pending legislation in the US Congress about giving government aid to private religious schools. This would be a form of government support to a religious institution, and violate the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These are the very first words of the First Amendment because our Founding Fathers valued its importance as we should and do today.

The First Amendment principle of separation protects our most personal and moral human rights. It shields us from a tyrannical government by clearly outlining the partition between church and state. The government is able to function without the church interfering, and people’s spirituality is not restricted by laws. The First Amendment gives Americans a nation they can be proud of, a nation they can trust to uphold their right to have or to not have religious beliefs.

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