Editor's note: This article is the text of a speech given by Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-OH) at the National Coalition for Public Education and Religious Liberty (PEARL) conference held at the National Education Association building in Washington, DC on September 22, 1994. The organization honored school administrator Ben Canada with its National PEARL Award.
We may be able to enjoy occasional victories. But the fact is that we cannot count on the courts to defend church-state separation any more. We need to take this fight to other places: to the Congress, to the statehouses, to the town councils, and into the schools.
Just as Dr. Ben Canada did when faced with a challenge in his own school system. Dr. Canada is one who stayed true to his principles. Dr. Canada is one who would not shirk his responsibility as an educator to protect every student's rights. Dr. Canada is one man who would not cave in.
Remember what we are up against. Remember what individuals like Dr. Canada must contend with. The Religious Right — a well-funded, well-organized network — will do everything it can to bring down the wall between church and state, and to bring down the Dr. Canadas of this country. And the Religious Right has plenty of clout with which to pursue its agenda.
There's the Christian Coalition, the American Family Association, and the Christian Broadcasting Network. The Religious Right also controls the Republican Party apparatus in states such as Texas, Minnesota, and Virginia. We truly are facing a veritable army of ideologues.
I believe that we need to be clear, absolutely clear, about one thing as we make our stand for religious freedom. Our fight is not with religious people. Tens of millions of Americans devoutly practice their faiths every day. We are not fighting against them. In fact, we are fighting for them. Religion in the home, in houses of worship, or in other private settings, is truly a wonderful thing. We are not fighting religion or religious people. Our fight is with those who would make religion a part of our government's day-to-day affairs. We have to match them at every level. We have to be just as organized, just as unified, and just as politically savvy.
The U.S. Senate, where I've proudly served for 19 years, will be different in 1995. No one is sure just what it will look like. We all know there will be new faces. But many of the senators whose church-state views I have opposed for 19 years will still be there. And you can count on them to continue their assault on the separation between church and state.
We all know their song. We've heard it all before. "Don't worry," they say. "We don't want much. Just a moment of silence. Just let students lead their own prayers in class. Just a few vouchers for religious schools. Just let teachers lead Bible studies now and then. Just let us edit your textbook list a bit." We have heard it all before, and we will hear it all again. It is a siren song that has lulled Americans into a state of apathy regarding their religious freedom.
The church-state battles rarely make us popular. They are never easy. They are often tiring and discouraging. But what's the alternative? If we let up, if we relax our guard, the floodgates open wide. The first crack may be on a moment of prayer, or on curriculum restrictions. But the crack will widen. We can't afford that. We can't afford to skip any battle over issues of fairness and freedom. And it's not fair to ask someone at the local level to go up against the Religious Right alone. Dr. Canada stood up, and he should know that I stand with him, and that everyone in this room stands with him as well.
Last November, one of the principals in Dr. Canada's school system took it upon himself to use a 5th Circuit decision as justification for daily student prayers over his school's public address system. The principal was repeatedly told that such action was not only inappropriate, but clearly unconstitutional. Yet the principal did not relent. Dr. Canada took the only appropriate action under the circumstances. He suspended the principal. Throughout the storm of controversy that followed, Dr. Canada was brave enough and committed enough to stand his ground, and to stand up for the essential freedoms we hold so dear.
I have said we need to stand together in the church-state fight. This is how we will win our battles. But before standing together, each of us must resolve to stand alone, if need be. Dr. Canada stood up, and to a great extent he stood alone. If we as individuals can stand up like Ben Canada did, then we truly will be unbeatable when we stand together.