Our young people are growing up in a world in which God is the new four-letter word. Look around and you will find that while it is permissible for children in many public school systems and homes to read novels with graphic language and watch sexually explicit commercials on TV, talking about God or religion is taboo.

Few objections are raised over the kind of music kids are listening to on their MP3-players at school during non-instructional time. However, lawsuits are constantly being filed over whether students should observe a moment of silence at the start of the school day. One incident perfectly illustrates my point recently came across my desk.

Wade, a fourth grader from Colorado. Wade’s class was given a “Hero” assignment, which required each student to pick a hero, research the person and write an essay. The student would then dress up and portray the chosen hero as part of a “live wax museum” and give an oral report in front of the class.

However, when the 9-year-old chose Jesus as his hero, school officials immediately insisted that he pick another hero. (You have to wonder whether school officials would have objected had Wade chosen the Dalai Lama — or even the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — as his hero.) After Wade’s parents objected, the school proposed a compromise: Wade could write the essay on Jesus. He could even dress up like Jesus for the “wax museum.” However, he would have to present his oral report to his teacher in private, with no one else present, rather than in front of the classroom like the other students.

The message to young Wade, of course, was two-fold: first, Jesus is not a worthy hero, and second, Jesus is someone to be ashamed of and kept hidden from public view. Yet do we really want our young people to grow up believing that freedom of speech means that you’re free to talk about anything as long as you don’t mention God or Jesus?

Much of the credit for this state of affairs can be chalked up to secularist organizations that have worked relentlessly to drive religion from public life. John Leo, a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report, painted a grim picture of those who operate under the so-called guise of safeguarding the separation of church and state so that all faiths might flourish. Leo’s article, written seven years ago, was an eerie foreshadowing of our current state of affairs:

“History textbooks have been scrubbed clean of religious references and holidays scrubbed of all religious references and symbols. Some intellectuals now contend that arguments by religious people should be out of bounds in public debate, unless, of course, they agree with the elites.”

Unfortunately, as the many cases that I deal with demonstrate, things have only gotten worse since John Leo wrote those words. How do we explain why these instances of discrimination have become the rule, rather than the exception?

Plain and simple, an elite segment of society that views God as irrelevant has come to predominate. As Christopher Lasch details in his book “The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy” (1995):

“Public life is thoroughly secularized. The separation of church and state, nowadays interpreted as prohibiting any public recognition of religion at all, is more deeply entrenched in America than anywhere else. Religion has been relegated to the sidelines of public debate.”

Those who have adopted this secular outlook frequently cite the “wall of separation between church and state” as justification for censoring, silencing and discriminating against religious individuals, especially in the public schools.

In fact, the historical record reveals that religion was integrated into the early public school curriculum. Textbooks referred to God without embarrassment, and public schools considered one of their major tasks to be the development of moral character through the teaching of religion.

While the cultural landscape has changed greatly since the founding of the country, one thing has not: America still stands for freedom and pluralism. What this demands is an equal voice for all viewpoints. This includes religion. If we do not maintain this ideal, then the only alternative is a form of secular society and government that respects no one’s freedom or opinions at all.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.