On Reagan’s Birthday, Remember His Defense of Religious Liberty Was Prophetic

Lathan Watts,

On February 6th, 1911, Nelle Reagan gave birth to a healthy baby boy who would later become our nation’s 40th president. Volumes have been written on President Ronald Reagan’s wit, wisdom, and legacy. He is often quoted by politicians and pundits from all points along the ideological spectrum. One of the many memorable and widely quoted phrases of Reagan’s career is, “If we ever forget that we are One Nation Under God, then we will be a Nation gone under.”

Though many have heard and repeated the admonition, the original context of the statement is even more relevant to many of today’s cultural conundrums and courtroom conflicts involving religious liberty than it was when Reagan first said it in 1984. He was commenting on the enactment of the “Equal Access Bill,” a law that was passed in response to several court decisions that had for all intents and purposes removed any reference to religion from public schools. In his remarks leading up to the famous quote Reagan noted,

“In 1963, the Court banned the reading of the Bible in our public schools. From that point on, the courts pushed the meaning of the ruling ever outward, so that now our children are not allowed voluntary prayer. We even had to pass a law – pass a special law in the Congress just a few weeks ago – to allow student prayer groups the same access to school rooms after classes that a Young Marxist Society, for example, would already enjoy with no opposition…

…Once religion had been made vulnerable, a series of assaults were made in one court after another on one issue after another. Cases were started to argue against tax-exempt status for churches. Suits were brought to abolish the words ‘Under God’ from the Pledge of Allegiance and to remove ‘In God We Trust’ from public documents and our currency. Without God there is no virtue because there is no prompting of the conscience…without God there is the coarsening of the society; without God democracy will not and cannot long endure…”

More than 30 years later, First Liberty Institute is still standing in defense of the same rights President Reagan identified as under threat.

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Next month we will be in court defending churches in Magnolia, Texas, from city government officials who tripled their water rates in a brazen attempt to subvert tax exemption.

We have had to defend the National Motto and its public display in schools and other government facilities. We have come to the aid of students in public schools to defend their right to mention their faith in commencement speeches, pray individually over their meals, or join with friends to pray. As recently as December of last year, in New York, Daniela Barca was told her after school club for Christian students wasn’t allowed because of its faith-based nature – the very discrimination the Equal Access Act was passed to prevent.  Citing that law, our attorneys were able to work with the school to ensure Daniela and her friends can meet like any other student organization.

Whether it is the often well-meaning but misinformed bureaucrat or the continued misinterpretation and broadening of the Establishment Clause to the detriment and near dormancy of the Free Exercise Clause by courts who should know better, the assault on religion in America continues. In light of the cases since its passage, Reagan’s remarks on the Equal Access Act seem prescient, if not prophetic. As people of all faiths can agree, the rights of conscience must always be vigilantly guarded. It brings to mind, on this the 109th anniversary of his birth, another of his most beloved admonitions for his countrymen:

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“Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

As our clients like Daniela Barca and so many others bravely take a stand in defense of religious liberty, there is hope that freedom has a reprieve for yet another generation. And whether they realize it or not, these intrepid young patriots are winning one more for the Gipper.