Friday, December 18, 2009

A holiday wish: Keep church, state separate

From the Parkville Luminary

Of the thousands of things I love about America, the separation of church and state, and our freedom of and from religion, is near the top of the list.

We are particularly blessed this holiday season to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in County of Allegheny v. ACLU (1989). The case involved two different displays in downtown Pittsburgh. One was a nativity placed at the county courthouse, and the other a broader seasonal display on the grounds of a city-county office building with a menorah, a Christmas tree, and a sign trumpeting the city’s salute to liberty. The court ruled that the nativity was unconstitutional, while the broader display was permissible. Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said that the nativity was an unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity.

We should also commemorate the 10th anniversary of an appeals court ruling in ACLU vs. Schindler. The case involved a Nativity scene, a menorah and a holiday tree owned by Jersey City, N.J. “The court ruled a holiday display entirely consisting of religious symbols violates the establishment clause. But the court said if religious symbols were placed in a secular context -- the city added Santa Claus, a 4-foot-tall plastic Frosty the Snowman and a red wooden sled after losing the case at the trial level -- then the display was permissible.” (UPI, 11/15/09).

This December, we also need to commend the North Kansas City Council, which just this month decided to stop reciting the Lord’s Prayer before every council business session. This decision respects everyone who lives in North Kansas City, yet does nothing to prohibit the Lord’s Prayer before, or after, official business.
These cases hinge on the establishment clause of the first amendment, which “not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion, but also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another. It also prohibits the government from unduly preferring religion over non-religion, or non-religion over religion.” ( ).

The establishment clause is wise indeed, for it protects the rights of the non-Christian minority in this country, as well as preventing the country from sliding down a slippery slope away from the rule of law and towards the abyss of intolerant religious rule.

In fact, that’s what the father of the constitution, James Madison, worried about. In his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments”, Madison wrote, “…Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”

The establishment clause, and protection from and for religion, should be appealing to Christians, adherents of minority religions, and non-believers. Do Christians really want an official stamp of bureaucratic approval for their religion? What would be the price of that stamp of approval—federal regulations? Political endorsements? Wouldn’t this inevitably lead to corruption? As Madison said, which denomination gets the official designation anyway? It’s unimaginable that any religion would want to slink into the swampy morass of politics, even if it meant some governmental blessing or sanction. Organized religion doesn’t need, and shouldn’t want, a courthouse for their nativity displays, and shouldn’t have to water down their message with Frosty or Santa. (See Schindler case, above). Those sacred displays have a hallowed place—on church property, or at a synagogue or temple, and not at a place where they can be regulated by a court or bureaucrat.
For those who practice non-Christian religions, our system offers them the freedom to worship as they choose without discrimination. For non-believers, the benefits of our secular society are even more palpable—the freedom from having a religion imposed from above (as it were!), and the freedom to raise your children without religion, if that is your choice.

So, as you’re celebrating this holiday season, or not, say a little prayer, or alternatively a kind thought, for the wisdom of America’s founders, and particularly for those who defend the establishment clause.

--As always, check out my Peace Journalism website at:

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