Censoring 'Kum Ba Ya'

Culture | Private agencies are now erecting "walls of separation" of their own

Issue: "Star makers, heartbreakers," Sept. 2, 2000

We all know that some courts have been zealous in upholding the "no establishment" clause of the Constitution, which they interpret as demanding the dismantling of nativity scenes, the removal of crosses from city logos, and the restricting of prayer, Bible reading, and Christmas carols in schools. Increasingly, though, private agencies are imitating the government's self-prohibition.

Today, many businesses-emulating the government's "wall of separation"-are forbidding their employees to wear religious symbols or to talk about their faith in the workplace. One extreme example: the Florida Boys and Girls Club banning the song "Kum Ba Ya" because it includes the word Lord (WORLD, Aug. 26).

Eight-year-old Samantha Schultz was prevented from singing the song at a talent show sponsored by the North Port, Fla., club's day camp. Bill Sadlo, director of operations of the club, said he did not let Samantha perform the song because he was afraid parents of other children might complain at a religious song being sung at the nonsectarian camp. "We don't want to take the chance of a child offending another child's religion," Mr. Sadlo said.

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Thus, government sensitivities are imported into the private sector, which is supposed to be a realm of freedom.

Exactly what the religious content of "Kum Ba Ya" is, has never been clear. It merely repeats over and over again what we were always told was the word in one African language for "come by here," along with some "my Lords" and an "oh, Lord." Unlike a hymn-but like other "praise songs"-it does not carry any specific doctrinal meaning. The word Lord, which is the only religious word in the song, is used to address the deities in just about every world religion. The former Beatle George Harrison had a hit record with a "My Sweet Lord" addressed to Lord Krishna.

A nervous public-school principal might ban "Kum Ba Ya," but a privately run day camp is not a public school. Nevertheless, "Kum Ba Ya" is way too religious and controversial for the North Port Boys and Girls Club, which has adopted the typical school policy of "no offense" (except to those who understand that leaving out any mention of God is an offense).

To cite another Bill of Rights issue, the Constitution does not allow the government to abridge freedom of speech or of the press. It is thus difficult for censorship laws to pass constitutional muster. But just because the government is not allowed to exercise censorship does not mean that private citizens cannot say no to objectionable material.

Yet, parents who object to their children reading certain books are accused of censorship. Retail stores that refuse to sell objectionable CDs are charged with censoring them. Conversely, that the government is not allowed to prevent certain kinds of material from being published is taken to mean that libraries, schools, and bookstores have an obligation to put it on their shelves.

A Boys and Girls Club is not the government. Even if it receives taxpayer money as a subsidy, it is still not the government. That the government has its hand in so many activities makes the confusion understandable, perhaps, but private citizens are free to do things that the government is not allowed

to do.

The Bill of Rights provides that the government may not show favoritism to any particular religion but also that it must not prohibit the free exercise of religion. As a private organization, the Boys and Girls Club is indeed free to censor Stephanie's talent-show entry. The problem is that the government is not only reflecting the culture but is exercising an influence of its own, promoting an aggressive secularism that puts "the free exercise" of religion at risk.

To have a religion but to "exercise" it as well presumably means more than having interior thoughts or experiences of a particular kind. A relativized faith based only on what is inside your own head is currently acceptable, as long as it makes no claim on the objective universe. But to "exercise" implies action, and the free exercise of religion must include acting it out in public. This surely would include such religiously motivated acts as fighting pornography or working to save the lives of children in the womb. The exercise of religion would also include less dramatic expressions, such as saying a prayer, wearing a cross necklace, or even singing "Kum Ba Ya."

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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