On Ash Wednesday, it is common to see individuals bearing the mark of the cross on their foreheads. The longstanding religious practice reminds the Christian faithful of their own sinfulness, while celebrating the atoning work of Christ on the cross.
Lauren F. Winner of Duke Divinity School says the practice "dates back to the 11th century," although he finds its origins possibly in the even more ancient biblical Book of Daniel — in which the author talks about using ashes as a tangible sign of fasting and repentance. While the world at times may have been observing Ash Wednesday with ashen crosses on their brows since biblical times, the American practice, according to Winner, is more recent, rising to popularity in the early 1970s.
But, evidently not everyone understands that. William McLeod, a fourth grader at Valley View Elementary School in Utah, is Catholic. He showed up to school this past Ash Wednesday morning with the traditional mark of the cross on his forehead. Students were curious, of course, and he gladly explained his religion and why he wore the sign of the cross that morning.
Even his teacher talked to him about it, but she was rather less curious. Instead, his teacher took him aside, told him the ashen mark of the cross was "inappropriate," and instructed him to wash his forehead clean. He attempted to explain the reason for the mark, but the explanation fell on deaf ears. When he asserted that the First Amendment afforded him the protection to practice his faith even at school, the teacher refused to listen. All this was in full view of his classmates.
Understandably, William spent the rest of the school day embarrassed and upset. Later, school administrators responded to complaints by his family and the teacher apologized, according to one report, with a handwritten note and some candy.
None of this needed to happen, of course. More directly, this should never have happened. Students are free to exercise their faith at school, so long as doing so does not interfere with the educational mission of the school. A harmless, silent mark of ash on a student’s forehead does nothing to inhibit such instruction.
Ash Wednesday is hardly a recent phenomenon and certainly not one hidden from public view. Situations like this show how nervous school officials have become at any display of religion in school. Their default tendency is to censor a student’s exercise of religion rather than to respect it.
As one court wisely put it, in situations like these, school officials do well to "educate the audience rather than squelch the speaker." Indeed, school officials too often miss this opportunity, leading the court to wonder "[i]f pupils do not comprehend so simple a lesson, then one wonders whether [schools] can teach anything at all."
More than merely a legal phenomenon, the situation reveals a culture afraid of the shadow of religion. Of course, that should be strange for a country that purports to value freedom and houses the gold standard for religious liberty in its founding documents — namely, the First Amendment. Religious exercise was, to the Founders, routine and its presence in daily life nothing to be feared. They feared government restraining religion — not the presence of it in public life. Put another way, the Founders welcomed religion in the public square and specified an amendment to the Constitution to make sure state actors would not push it from public view.
But, the regular drumbeat of "separation of church and state" invented in the middle of last century has begun to take hold in the minds of some teachers. No less than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last month even noted that our society is increasingly less Christian, wondering aloud whether that is a basis for removing a cross-shaped veterans memorial erected in a different era. An increasingly secular America, the logic goes, requires even the most nominal display of religion to be hidden from view. Or, as young Mr. McLeod discovered, wiped out.
The First Amendment is not dependent on the ebb and flow of our country’s religiosity. Yet, state officials — and sometimes jurists — often act like it is. Religious liberty values government neutrality and the space for the free exercise of religion over notions of fairness or equal time.
Whether it is a 93-year-old veterans memorial or an ashen mark on the forehead, the responsibility of state officials is to respect religion, its symbols and the free exercise of it by Americans — rather than engage in a panicked hostility toward religion that purges religion from the public square.
Jeremy Dys is Deputy General Counsel for First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending religious freedom for all Americans. Read more at FirstLiberty.org.