L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 301, December 19, 2004
Happy Ngu Year!
Special to TLE
It's that time of year again. The malls are begging for conspicuous consumption. The stores are selling select items at a loss in the hopes of selling other more profitable goods to those who are there for sale prices. Twinkling lights are everywhere. Goodwill and stress alike are rampant. And lawsuitsand threats of lawsuitsabound.
In the last couple of weeks, there have been any number of news stories about alleged First Amendment and "separation clause" violations in connection with the holiday season. In Florida, one city has rewritten its policies concerning religious displays on city property; another is facing a lawsuit of its own concerning the identical issue. A New Jersey school is prohibiting its students from singing or playing any song with any religious connotations; the city of Denver, Colorado is being accused of an anti-Christian bias for refusing to permit any Christmas floats in its annual Parade of Lights. Meanwhile, a Georgia school principal is being castigated for reading a prayer of sorts over the school intercom prior to Thanksgiving.
Such complaints have become ubiquitous from both sides of the issue; lawyers and special interest groups are doing a booming business in First Amendment matters. The problem, of course, isn't that there aren't violations of the First Amendment being imposed on a regular basis. There are. The real problem is that such issues are being made far more complicated and divisive than they need to be. Perhaps that's because the lawyers are doing that booming business. Or maybe it's because those on a mission to change things to their own point of view aren't inclined to permit the freedom of anyone else to do anything but agree with them. Whatever the reasons, the results involve a good deal of money, and no shortage of bad feelings.
The First Amendment guarantees American freedom of religion as well as implies a separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson affirmed that interpretation in a January, 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Church in which he wrote "... I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state." Realistically, however, little interpretation is needed given that the First Amendment is really quite clear in its statement that the government shall neither prohibit nor endorse any religion.
Despite that clarity, there are some who seem to insist that freedom of religion is the same as freedom from religion. Others seem to be genuinely bewildered by the position of some that government expressions of Christianity are offensive. Both sides have their valid points; but both sides mitigate their every argument by being absolutist. Instead of laws and lawsuits, a little common sense interjected into the issue would go a long way toward solving the ongoing problems.
Take a look, for example, at the issue of Christmas displays on public property. A year ago, a Florida town found itself in legal hot water because it permitted the display of a menorah on public property but refused a similar display consisting of a nativity scene. Town officials insisted that the menorah was a secular, or non-religious, symbol while the nativity scene was patently Christian. While they were obviously right about the nativity scene, they were wrong about the menorah. A menorah is a symbol of the Jewish religion and is related to the celebration of Hanukkah. It seemed to me at the time that the only constitutional treatment of the displays was to either permit all of them or refuse all of them. Eventually, the city agreed and has rewritten its policies accordingly. But how much time and money was wasted, and how many hard feelings were generated, merely to get the city to adopt the kind of reasonable policy it should have had in the first place?
The school principal in Georgia I mentioned earlier almost certainly knew better, but on the day before Thanksgiving, he chose to read a poem over the school intercom that generated offense and complaints almost before he turned the microphone off. Apparently under the pretense that it was a poem and so not a prayer, the principal somehow managed to temporarily justifyat least to himselfthe reading of material that lamented that officially sanctioned school prayer was prohibited and which itself ended with the line, "So, Lord, this silent plea I make..."
Although the poem was offensive to all of those who oppose school prayer as well as to any non-Christians who were forced to hear it by virtue of compulsory attendance, there were admittedly a few valid points made within the reading., While it certainly is a tacit government endorsement or promotion of a religion to read prayers on intercoms, there are other cases where students have been disciplined for reading a Bible on their own time while on school grounds. Groups or clubs have been actively discriminated against for available meeting space, advisors, and more when those groups bore some religious affiliation or another.
Again, the answers are simple. In the case of the former, coercion is involved. But in the latter, prohibition of religion is central. Neither of those circumstances are constitutional, and yet the debate persists with the insistence that either both activities be permitted or that both be disallowed. The only truly just actions and policies fall somewhere between the two. If it infringes on the rights of another, it's wrong; if it permits others to exercise their rights while the uninterested or offended don't have to hear it, it's all right. Under those basic guidelines, school assemblies that include prayers are unconstitutional while Bible study meetings after hours are perfectly legal.
By constantly demanding that people give up their personal religious beliefs merely because they happen to be on public property at the time, First Amendment guarantees of freedom of worship, speech, and assembly are being violated. At the same time, those who would insist that the government take on the characteristics of a majority religion are violating the same precepts even as they engage in discriminatory behaviors to boot. It's these extremist positions that are causing still more trouble.
Those citizens and public officials who do their utmost to force others to recognize their religious beliefs by posting the Ten Commandments or crosses on public property are begging for lawsuits. Their prayers (pun intended) are frequently answered. Meanwhile, those who are on a crusade to strip all mention of religion from public even when those mentions are being made by private citizens (consider paving bricks used as fundraisers, for example, which some maintain shouldn't be allowed any religious content) are violating the very statutes they claim to be trying so hard to uphold. As a result, the fight is becoming even more bitter and making inroads into areas where such opinion truly has no place.
As you read this, a Texas pastor is being sued for having disciplined a congregant according to the rules of the church. A woman who committed adultery refused to repent. So, in accordance with church belief, the pastor of her church advised the congregation she was no longer a member there and offered a biblical explanation as to why her membership was being revoked. The woman subsequently sued the pastor. While a lower court ruled in favor of the minister, an appeals court reversed that ruling. The case is now being appealed to the Texas State Supreme Court
If the woman's secular boss had disciplined her according to his personal religious beliefs, I'd agree that the woman has a case. But there's a certain set of beliefs one must accept when one follows one religious faith or another. Since the woman failed to adhere to those beliefs, the pastor has every right to disassociate himself and his church from her. After all, to go back to the example of an employer, the woman would certainly be fired if she proved herself incapable of doing the job for which she was hired. There's little if any difference here in practice; in reality, the biggest difference is the one that makes the pastor's decision even more unquestionable, and that is the fact it's a religious issue which should be decided solely by religious authorities. If the courts continue to rule in the woman's favor, the First Amendment will be dealt a significant blow.
In the meantime, the holidays are rapidly approaching and few seem inclined to stop fighting either the constraints or reliefs offered by the First Amendment. Instead, they go shopping and wrap toys in shiny packages but are offended when others mention that part of the reason behind all of this gift-giving has to do with Judaism or Christianity. In fact, many object to the barest mention that those particular religions have anything to do with anything, even during Hanukkah. Or on Christmas.
Conversely, there are those who look down their pious noses at those who choose not to celebrate religiously, and who demand that their own religious viewpoints be not only acknowledged but given preferential treatment. These are the people who, since a majority in America are Christian, think that those who aren't should just sit down, shut up, and bow their heads out of respect when others are leading them in Christian prayer.
I've jumped up and down more than once with objections to those who would impose their religion on others. I feel exactly the same way about those who would demand their non-religion receive any moreor lessrespect than that due their opposites. Both sides need to remember that there can be no freedom of worship when worship is either mandated or prohibited. The government ought to try to remember that, too, as well as to recall that equal treatment would better involve positive inclusion and thus the most possible freedom, rather than across-the-board discrimination and a universal quashing of the right to worship as one sees fit.
In the spirit of the First Amendment, have a happy...well, enjoy whatever it is you celebrate this time of year. Perhaps more people this year will finally begin to consider letting other people celebrate whatever it is they celebrate, too, and without complaint. Now that would be a real gift!
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