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Thanksgiving: A Good Time to Exercise Our ‘Real’ First Amendment Rights
Nov 27, 2008 - 3:21:09 PM

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By Penny Fletcher

I was taught to respect the law of the land when I was just a youngster. But I was also taught to think for myself. Back in the day- the fifties to be exact- when girls were educated to be teachers or nurses, telephone operators or secretaries, I was told that I could be anything I wanted if I wanted it badly enough to work for it; even if it was something that until that time had been “reserved” only for boys.
I didn’t learn anything about civil disobedience until my youth group from church got hosed by police in the Newark riots. Until we saw what was happening in some other places in the country, the only injustice I knew about was what we read in the Weekly Readers we shared in social studies class.
You see, I grew up close enough to the Atlantic Ocean to smell salt spray whenever an east wind blew and started kindergarten in Asbury Park, N.J.’s public school system in September, two months before I turned five.
I can still remember entering that first classroom, and many of the classrooms I attended after it. We’d go to our seats – usually just making the last bell, everybody laughing and talking about what they’d done the night before even if that was just sitting on the porch talking to the neighbors – and for the next half hour the classroom pattern never changed. We’d start with roll call, then stand for the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, sit back down and fold our hands and close our eyes while the teacher said a prayer out loud. After that, students took turns reading from the big black Bible that sat on the teacher’s desk, usually something from the Old Testament because the class was a mixture of Christians and Jews and the teachers knew that we all used the Old Testament in our worship at home, although not everybody in the classroom used the New one.

There were students from all walks of life in those classrooms. One of my best friend’s houses didn’t have running water. Another had a mom who spoke only German. Several of my friends didn’t have the same color skin as I did but nobody seemed to care. My parents welcomed anybody I brought into our home.
They were very strict about justice too. They said everybody should always be treated the same, unless, of course, they were really mean and hitting somebody smaller in which case they deserved as good a wallop as I could deliver.
The father who adopted and raised me had come through Ellis Island as an 8-year-old child and my mother’s family had been in the northeast as long as family records existed.
When holidays came, we all “just knew” the meaning of them. Why, we even knew that the word “holiday” came from shortening the words “holy day” and that originally, most of our holidays had religious meanings.
My Jewish friends were automatically excused from school on their special days, and I remember how excited I was that some of them invited me to Temple where I attended Bar Mitzvahs and learned about some really great new dances, songs, prayers and food.
As a Christian, I was taught that “Christmas” was the shortened form of “Christ’s Mass” (Mass being a word for church service in some Christian churches) and that Thanksgiving meant “giving thanks to God for our blessings” like the Pilgrims and American Indians did even though it wasn’t made an official “holy day” until Abraham Lincoln stated in 1863 that it was to be held the last Thursday of November. Until then, each president had to make an official proclamation after making the decision about which day that year’s celebration would be held.
There wasn’t any doubt about “who” they were thanking. Lincoln’s proclamation is available in several places on the Internet as well as in libraries.

There wasn’t any doubt about “in whom we trust” either because it has been on U.S. coins (and was referred to as the national motto) since 1864, although it was not made official under an act of Congressional legislation until 1956. (I thought I remembered the year we studied that in ‘My Weekly Reader’ so I’m glad I checked it because I was a year off!)
My point is this: Just because Madalyn Murray O’Hair filed her famous “Murray vs Curlett” against the Baltimore City School System in 1960 (Thank you Mrs. Van Campen, Asbury Park High School for that important chunk of knowledge) does not mean it is against the law to pray in a public place.
Oh I know what some of you are thinking- good grief, this journalist doesn’t know the meaning of the First Amendment!
The problem with that statement is that it has only been for the last 40 years that there has been a disagreement over what separation of church and state means. I would never argue with those of you who claim that some of our founding fathers were atheists. (I’ve heard that one a lot since 1975.) And I’ll bet the Supreme Court justices are as tired of people arguing the “church and state” thing as most of the people are.
Those of us who were fortunate enough to have teachers who knew how to interpret the meaning of (and behind) words, were taught from kindergarten about how the Church of England was expected to be the “Church of the Colonists” until our ancestors took up arms. Why, without the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States we wouldn’t even be allowed to have a variety of Christian religions, let alone anything else.
Reading the words exactly as they are written, there should be no doubt: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Excuse me, but “make no law establishing …religion” does not tell me you can’t pray in a public building. In fact, farther in that same sentence, are the words “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” As far as I’m concerned, that’s the part that’s being infringed upon.
I know a reporter (not with this newspaper of course) who almost lost her job for praying on the job. I also know a student who was told to remove the Bible from her desk at a public school.
This is Thanksgiving folks. Sure, we have the turkey and the pumpkin pie. Thanks Mom, or Grandma, or Aunt Sue or whoever prepared it.
But in this United States of America, we have the right- no, more than that at this crucial time in history- the obligation, to say “Thank God for what we have.”
The Bible says that “thanksgiving prayer” is the outpouring of gratitude to God for His blessings; life, family, friends, food, shelter, and especially love.
Psalms 100 to 116 are perhaps the greatest thanksgivings ever stated. All speak of “Praising the Lord for the greatness He has done.”
I truly believe that here in the United States of America, where so many of different cultures struggle to become one people, no one must be afraid to stand up for what they believe, whether we call our Creator God, Jehovah, Jesus Christ, Allah, or Great Spirit, we have the responsibility to say “Thank You” on this most Holy Day.
So as a Christian, I will say “Thank God.”

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