Public education that ignores the role of religious liberty in United States culture and history is incomplete and overlooks one of the most significant influences in the shaping of the country, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve told an educational group on October 13.
He spoke during the U.S. West Educational Symposium at Boise State University in Boise, Idaho.
Elder Oaks decried the omission from history textbooks of references to religion and its “significant role in American history.”
Political, educational, business, and religious leaders met to discuss the Williamsburg Charter, a document Elder Oaks signed in 1988 as a representative of the Church. Its purpose is “to celebrate and reaffirm religious liberty as the foremost freedom of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.
“Religious liberty is the motivating and basic civil liberty because faith in God and his teachings and the active practice of religion are the most fundamental guiding realities of life.”
Signers of the Williamsburg Charter, he said, “are seeking to offset the symbol and pattern of hostility to religion or indifference to religious liberty that have characterized many court decisions, much media publicity, and some public understandings for over a quarter of a century.”
The Williamsburg Charter Foundation proposes a public school curriculum with an academic, rather than a devotional, approach to religion. It “would sponsor study about, not practice of, religion” and would “expose students to a diversity of religious views but not impose any particular one.”
One cannot understand great music, art, and literature of the Western world “without understanding the religious beliefs and traditions of the people by whom and for whom those works of art were created.”
He also severely criticized efforts to ban denominational public prayers, particularly by use of the threat of lawsuits to intimidate school districts or government bodies into banning all prayers.
“Much of the controversy over prayer in public places suffers from a failure to distinguish between what is government and what is merely public,” he said.
A decision outlawing prayers in tax-supported public school classrooms, he said, does not forbid prayers “in settings that are merely public, such as town meetings, patriotic programs, PTA functions, and even high school graduations.”
The first United States Supreme Court school prayer case brought a decision that it was “no part of the business of government to author prayers to be offered by its citizens,” he explained. “Before we invoke judicial power to indicate what words cannot be included in a prayer, we should remember that if it is no part of the business of government to write a prayer, then it is no part of the business of a court to censor a prayer.”