Saturday, May 15, 2010

Disentangle church and state

From the Parkville Luminary

Imagine an America with mandated prayer time in public schools, crosses and nativities displayed at every public building, and a Christianity litmus test for all public office holders (although, de facto, this already exists for elected officials).

For millions of Americans, this is their dream—a country that endorses, encourages, and embraces Christianity.

For me, this vision is closer to a nightmare. It’s not a nightmare because there’s necessarily anything wrong with Christianity. Rather, the problem lies in the entanglement of church and state.

Two recent court cases addressed this issue head-on. One court got it right, while the other decision imperils the separation of church and state.

Recently, a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that the National Day of Prayer (May 6) is unconstitutional. The decision said the prayer day “goes beyond mere acknowledgment of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function.” U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb, who wrote the opinion, is right on target.

So, what’s wrong with prayer? Nothing, if you ask the 90% of Americans who say they pray daily. (Pittsburg Post-Gazette, 5/3/10). In fact, only 5% of American oppose a National Day of Prayer ( Interestingly, the same poll said that 57% favor the prayer day, while a whopping 38% said it “doesn’t matter”.

For his part, President Obama is characteristically taking a politically expedient position on the issue. He said the prayer day is an “acknowledgement of the role of religion in American life.” I can’t blame him for siding with an overwhelming majority, but I am disappointed nonetheless at his lack of backbone on the issue. I don’t believe for a second that Obama, as an intellectual, doesn’t see the obvious: the National Day of Prayer does promote, advance, and support religion, since prayer is, in the words of Judge Crabb, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function.

If it’s okay for government to encourage and support prayer, what’s next—a national day for confession and communion? A national snake-handling day? A national baptism day? When we allow the government to meddle in religion, even in seemingly innocuous ways, we invite government to take the next step, and the step after that, down that slippery slope that can lead to a state religion.

For example, the display of a Christian cross on public lands might seem harmless, but it’s not, since it implicitly and explicitly endorses one religion to the exclusion of others. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court couldn’t see the easy logic in this argument. In a recent 5-4 decision, the court conservatives ruled that a Christian cross displayed at the Mojave National Preserve in California is permissible since the Constitution “does not require the eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm”. (KC Star, 4-29-10)

The court’s dissenters logically wrote that such a display, even if it’s meant to honor war heroes, should “avoid endorsement of a particular religious view”.

If the symbol displayed at the Mojave National Preserve was a Star of David or an Islamic crescent or a Wiccan symbol, would the court have ruled the same? Don’t count on it. Aside from being bad law, the Supreme Court’s decision will unfortunately provide aid and comfort to those who insist on adorning public lands and buildings with Christian icons.

Both freedom of religion and freedom from religion are protected and enhanced when an impermeable wall is erected between the secular, governmental world and the spiritual, religious world. It’s too bad the Supreme Court’s conservatives don’t understand this.

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