L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 304, January 30, 2005
"How free are you...."
Taking Oaths and Stealing Freedoms
Special to TLE
Over the past weeks, there's been much talk of the inauguration ceremony and parties for the second term of President George W. Bush. Some people think that far too much money is spent on such festivities (it is, but the donations are private and what people choose to spend their money on is their own business). Others worry that their First Amendment right to express their opinion along the parade route is being infringed (security is understandably very tight, and some groups are disgrunted they're not getting the preferred seating they think they ought to have, while others are upset at some of the things the Secret Service is prohibiting within certain boundaries). And then we have one man from California who thinks that some portions of the inauguration are a violation of the separation of church and state.
Michael Newdow is a self-professed atheist who became a nationally known figure when he sued to remove the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. It is his opinion that including those words is a violation of the separation between church and state (as it happens, I agree with him, but I've discussed that before and that's not what this particular column is about). That suit was dismissed by the US Supreme Court which ruled Mr. Newdow didn't have the standing to bring such a suit. He's since re-filed the suit including other plaintiffs, and the matter is once again making its way through the court system.
More recently, Mr. Newdow filed a suit which alleged that taking the presidential oath with one hand on the Bible and including an inaugural prayer is unconstitutional. His request for an injunction against the inaugural activities in question was dismissed by a judge on January 14. Even prior to the lawsuit dismissal, I openly defended the President's desire to take the oath of office with his hand on a Bible and to have someone say a prayer.
From the point of view of the Constitution, it's simple enough to make a determination as to the constitutionality of the oath of office. That's because the presidential oath is given in the Constitution itself (Article 2, Section I). It makes no mention of a God or gods. In fact, in the Constitution it specifically says that an oath to uphold the Constitution is mandated, but that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office of public Trust under the United States." (See Article 2, Section VI.) As long as the minimum requirements are met, it's perfectly constitutional, and adding "so help me, God" to the end of the oath doesn't mitigate those minimum requirements.
As the first President of the United States, George Washington chose to take his oath of office with his left hand on the family Bible. That was his decision for his own reasons, and though not constitutionally mandated, his choice was also in no way constitutionally prohibited. The same holds true today. In fact, the only thing that I found truly disturbing about the idea of George W. Bush swearing an oath with one hand on the Bible was the citation by the chief legal counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice that the oath on the Bible is okay because it is traditional.
Simply because something is traditional doesn't necessarily make it right (it's traditional in some cultures, for example, to subjugate or to sexually mutilate women). Far worse than that is the implication that future presidents will follow that tradition. What happens when we elect our first Jewish president? Or the first Muslim, Buddhist, or atheist president? But Mr. Bush isn't Jewish, and if he wants to swear on a Bible to defend the Constitution, then that's what he should do (it should be noted that Biblically speaking, taking oaths in God's name is prohibited as stated in Matthew 5:34-37, but I'm aware of very few Christians who know this let alone adhere to it).
Having an invocation at many government venues might be inappropriate if Americans are coerced into attendance, or if the event is one funded by tax dollars and therefore at least somewhat representative of all of us. But, as stated earlier, the inauguration is a privately funded event to which members of the public happen to be invited. If the President wants to have a prayer at his party, that's his business. If you don't like it or are offended by it, don't go to the inauguration.
Michael Newdow isand you'll pardon the use of the termon a crusade to rid the government of all traces of religion. While I appreciate and even agree with his motives, his absolute intolerance is at least as discriminatory as he accuses his opposites of being. His notion of freedom is one that would ensure his own sensibilities are never offended. That, in turn, makes it certain that others would lose their own valued liberties. Mr. Newdow needs to remember that the United States government is constitutionally prohibited from having any official position on religion. That means that it can't take a position against religion any more than it can act in favor of religion.
President Bush won't appreciate the comparison, but in his own way, he's a lot like Mr. Newdow. But while Mr. Newdow considers freedom of religion to be freedom from religion, Mr. Bush is of the considered opinion that religionspecifically Christianityis a virtual requirement to be a good American.
In an interview with The Washington Times, the president is quoted as acknowledging that Americans have the right to religious freedom, but that those who aren't religious aren't patriotic Americans. He says that he's never acted like that's the case, but that he thinks that's "just the way it is." He also made it abundantly clear that he doesn't "see how you can be president without a relationship with the Lord," effectively saying that he doesn't think non-Christians would make good presidents.
Although he makes a point in the interview of saying Americans have the freedom to worship or not worship, he then says our country is different from the Taliban because "the greatest freedom we have, or one of the greatest freedoms, is the right to worship the way you see fit." While the former comment gives at least lip service to the notion that some don't worship at all, the latter seems to disregard that not worshipping is a possible and legitimate choice under the First Amendment.
To his credit, the president does say that he doesn't think that "faith is under attack by culture at large." He never-the-less is stepping up his so-called "faith-based initiative" for his second term. This program allows religious-based charitable programs to receive federal tax dollars to do their work. At the time the notion was originally presented, it was made clear that any such programs that received tax funds would have to steer clear of religious discrimination against recipients and remove any religious components or requirements. Unfortunately, much as critics predicted, that's not always proving to be the case.
Just last week, a federal judge in Madison, Wisconsin ordered funding through a faith-based initiative be halted for a group whose acknowledged primary goal is to "share the gospel of Jesus Christ." Meanwhile, despite the administration's "no child left behind" school policy, the United States continues to fall behind other developed countries in education. While a part of the blame can arguably be layed at the feet of a powerful union (the National Education Association) which chooses to emphasize self-esteem over knowledge, there's also a growing conservative effort to undermine education. For example, there are currently ongoing arguments in several states (Georgia, Pennsylvania, and California) over whether or not creationism should be included in science classes, and the Bush administration has yet to say a word about this very real threat to education in biology, chemistry, and cosmology (true science, like legitimate government, is religion-neutral).
Virtually all of these movements are Christian-based. Certainly, the president's remarks concerning patriotism and politics are firmly rooted in his own Christian faith (the president is a devout Methodist). Despite the danger to all non-Christians represented by this mindset, only one group has so far spoken out against the the comments President Bush made in his interview: American Atheists. Where are the rabbis, the imams, the shamans, and and the priestesses? They, too, have a significant stake in any freedom of religion issue.
I wonder if President Bush is really in favor of real freedom of religion, or if he's just in favor of the freedom of Christians being able to practice their religion? While Michael Newdow seems to clearly favor his own philosophy over all otherssomething I consider to be in direct opposition to the First Amendment he so shrilly citesis President George W. Bush any less the villain where genuine freedom of religion is concerned?
The ironic part of the story is that Michael Newdow, contrary to George W. Bush's remarks, is very much a patriot in the sense that he's using his freedom and his interpretation of the Constitution to fight for what he believes the Constitution to mean. And George W. Bush is making decisions as to his oath of office and his inauguration that honor his own religious beliefs without actively infringing on the religious freedoms of others (his administration's infringements on a host of other rights notwithstanding).
Perhaps the larger issue here is that we typically seem to see only the Christians vs. the atheists or vice versa. There are a host of other religions practiced in this country, too, which also need to keep a watch on religious liberty. This is a battle that neither the atheists nor the Christians can be allowed to win. If anyone wins, everyone loses. The truly sad part is that, without people like Michael Newdow and George W. Bush, there'd be no fight at all.
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