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Toledo, Ohio & Lake Erie

The Press Newspaper

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By Scores of students and community members in the Lake Local School District of Stark County have been wearing T-shirts that proclaim, "We value a belief in God." Their right to bear that message is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution, even though it is intended as an assault on that same amendment.

Without freedom of speech and of religion, two of the five provisions in the First Amendment, folks in the Lake School District may not be permitted to publicly proclaim their belief in God. But those who enjoy freedoms are not always willing to share them with others who do not share their values.

Such is the case in Stark County. Imagine, if you will, what would happen if a group of students were to wear T-shirts declaring, "There is no God." The vocal minority which falsely claims that America is a Christian nation would assail them with hateful crimination.

As a matter of fact, hateful crimination against those who dare to have different values has erupted in the Lake School District.

Some years ago, the board of education adopted a values statement that included "belief in God and religious freedom," which happens to be a contradiction in terms. The religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment gives Americans the right to practice Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or no theism whatsoever. Yes, people in this country have the right to be atheists without being treated as second-class citizens -- according to the Constitution anyway.

Because the Lake School District explicitly stated that atheists are excluded from its definition of values and implicitly suggested that people who worship a deity other than the God of the Judeo-Christian majority may not live up to the same values, at least one family contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisc.

The foundation threatened a lawsuit against the school district unless the phrase, "belief in God," were removed from its government-established statement of values. Based on legal precedent, the foundation expressed confidence that it would prevail if the case went to court.

Facing potentially expensive litigation at a time when public schools are hard-pressed to balance their budgets and when voters are reluctant to approve new operating levies, the school board decided to temporarily remove "belief in God," while affirming "religious freedom" among the official values.

That brought a strong reaction from community members who say they believe in God but apparently don't believe in religious freedom for others. It included the T-shirts that could cast doubt and shame upon people who decline to wear them. Many demanded that the school board spend the taxpayers' money -- including that paid by people who do support religious freedom -- to fight the threatened lawsuit, even if that would mean balancing the budget on the back of actual educational programs.

Some people took offense that an "outside organization" was interfering in local affairs. But it was intolerance that caused the family who contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to shield its identity.

One of the T-shirt peddlers accused the foundation of "trying to impose their belief in having no belief." Actually, nobody has sought to include atheism among the values stated by the school district. Responsibility, honesty, respect and integrity are among the stated values, but they seem to have been lost in the commotion.

(Dave Lange is the editor of the Chagrin Valley Times)

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