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I n th e P eople’s Republic of China, “freedom of religious belief” and “normal” religious practice are guaranteed in the Constitution. If, however, you are caught proselytizing outside of your own mosque or preaching the biblical account of the nativity at a private Christmas party, you are liable to land in jail. Why the discrepancy? It’s simple — in China, as in most sovereign states , there’s the Constitution and then there’s constitutional interpretation . The one guarantees freedom of speech and religion; the other ensures that the press and preacher are strictly censored.

The U.S. Constitution makes explicit even broader religious rights than those of the PRC. Not only does the First Amendment disallow any infringement of the “free exercise” of religion, it also prohibits the “establishment” of religion by the state. Under this prohibition, laws which suggested a daily prayer in New York public schools were struck down in the famous 1962 Engel v. Vitale case. More recently, however, school authorities have begun to use the prohibition against governmental “establishment” of religion to prohibit student practice of religion in government schools.

For example, Chase Windebank , a current high school senior at a Colorado Springs public school, leads a meeting with fellow students that regularly involves prayer and religious songs. Due to the ubiquitous tolerance of religion in America, Windebank’s bi-weekly meetings were overlooked for three years. But this semester, the Pine Creek principal realized that though the meetings took place during “open” time — when students were allowed to hang out, snack, read or play video games — this “open” time was still “considered instructional time.”

After all, students were allowed to schedule meetings with teachers during this period if they were so inclined, and it wasn’t like they were free to leave school. Chase was called into the assistant principal’s office and told that his meetings were a violation of the separation of church and state. While the gatherings were allowed to continue, it was necessary that any explicitly religious activity be removed from the program. Otherwise, the meetings had to occur after the school day ended.

Similar applications of the Establishment Clause are frequently applied to religious references made by high school students in their graduation speeches. For example, earlier this year, Brooks Hamby, a California public school salutatorian , was instructed to remove religious language from the third draft of his speech. While this may have been shrewd editorial advice — given Hamby’s secular audience — school administrators did not present their redactions as optional. They explained a few hours before the ceremony that they would pull the mic on Hamby if he delivered a speech with religious content — even though that content was presented explicitly as his personal belief and source of inspiration.

School action of this kind is, of course, prompted by Supreme Court decisions which struck down state laws promoting religion in the public schools.

But there is a difference between removing laws designed to promote a religious perspective and instituting laws that forbid students to openly express their religious views.

Brooks Hamby was selected to give a brief, traditionally moralizing speech based on his academic merit — not religious views. But when it was discovered that his “words of wisdom for the road ahead” were informed by his particular religious beliefs, he was ordered to reorient his speech — as if an individual’s salutatorian speech could be interpreted by the audience as a governmental establishment of that individual’s religion.

Across the country, similarly misguided school authorities have ordered the removal of nominally religious images and quotations (such as an educational poster featuring the five pillars of Islam or a Ronald Reagan quote that mentioned God) and banned or bullied religious clubs. There are places and cases in modern-day America that involve law-enforced promotion of a particular religious perspective. But there is also plenty of hyper-sensitive censorship of religion couched as a constitutional obligation to “separate church and state.”

Reading such cases, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the state “protection” of “normal” religious practice granted to my religiously-minded Chinese friends. Sure, the U.S. government is much more liberal than the PRC. But even in America, there’s the Constitution — and then there’s constitutional interpr eta tion.

Jeremiah Keenan is a College sophomore from China studying mathematics. His email address is “Keen on the Truth” appears every Wednesday.

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