Perhaps the most frustrating argument I hear against the separation of church and state boils down to this: We need the government to “recognize” the value of religion – usually this means Christianity – in our city, county, state or nation. It’s never adequately explained why those of us who are religious would need this. Can’t we appreciate what we believe on our own?
This issue arose anew last month after Americans United won a preliminary ruling from a federal court in South Carolina stalling (and soon, we hope, permanently preventing) distribution of special “I Believe” license plates.
Lest anyone think the belief is generic, let me remind you that these tags feature a cross and a stained glass window – symbols not common in, say, the Hindu or Islamic traditions. It’s clearly a “Christian” license plate.
Immediately after the grant of an order stopping the release of these plates, the blogosphere was ablaze (or, more appropriately, befogged) with comments about how this “censorship” would prevent the free expression of Christian beliefs.
Really? Since when do South Carolinians need a boost from government to express their faith?
In fact, long before South Carolina legislators decided to design this plate and then pass a bill authorizing its production and marketing, Christians there were perfectly capable of expressing their religiosity – even with their cars. Some put bumper stickers on their vehicles expressing religious views (“In the event of Rapture, this car will stop”) and attached fish symbols to their trunks. The drivers were communicating their views and if other drivers didn’t like it, too bad. That’s free expression.
However, when state legislators decided to appropriate a few Christian symbols for their political purpose (never too unhealthy to pander to the state majority in a turmoil-filled election year), they crossed a forbidden line. They were now promoting Christianity over all other faiths.
Indeed, some legislators happily admitted they wouldn’t promote Islamic, Wiccan or Buddhist plates. The argument seems to be: no Muslim plates because we don’t want to look like we are supporting that faith, but a Christian plate is great – although in court we’ll say that isn’t a sign of support. When you combine hypocrisy with bad constitutional law, little wonder you buy yourself a lawsuit!
We also struggled through another holiday season when the same kind of hypocrisy was visible. Ever since the Supreme Court in 1984 (erroneously in my view) told communities that if you mix secular and religious symbols in your government “holiday” display you can indeed officially recognize the season, we’ve seen all manner of goofy meldings of Santa’s reindeer and wise men’s camels that should embarrass people of good taste whether they have any religious sentiments or not.
Many supporters of the Religious Right seemed to have trouble grasping the concept of fair play last month. In Washington state, a nasty fracas broke out over symbols, religious and non. State officials had allowed a menorah in the legislative building last year and agreed to permit an Olympia man to display a Nativity scene this year.
You can guess what happened after the Freedom From Religion Foundation sought and won the right to put up a sign promoting a Winter Solstice/atheist display arguing that religion is “myth” and celebrating reason. Suddenly Bill O’Reilly and his fans were all up in arms. They demanded the Solstice sign be removed and charged that Gov. Christine Gregoire had put it there. In fact, it was a Religious Right legal group, the Alliance Defense Fund, that crafted the legal agreement that paved the way for the Solstice sign.
Perhaps the Religious Right should have said, “We were wrong last year; please take down the religious symbols, and we’ll put our manger scene on a church lawn instead, and the atheists can put up their sign outside their own building.”
It isn’t necessary to fill the Washington rotunda with doodads to remind people of the holiday season; there are many alternative ways people would get that message. Most stores are festooned with Christmas trimmings and many private homes and houses of worship are as well.
With so many private venues available, why do some people find it necessary to try to force the state into the religion business? Are they so insecure in their faith that they feel the need for a government endorsement? My religion is doing fine, thank you very much, even without a stamp of approval from city hall or a special government-issued license plate.
President Barack Obama has taught constitutional law. President George W. Bush often did not appear to have ever read the Constitution. There is, therefore, some reason to hope that maybe our new chief executive might use his bully pulpit to talk about the fundamentals of our founding document.
I know he has a few things on his plate early on, the crumbling world economy and two wars, to start with. However, maybe on a slow weekend when he is searching for a topic for his Saturday radio address (now being streamed on the internet as well), Obama might explain why he supports true freedom of speech and what the separation of church and state is really about – and why religion doesn’t need the government’s “help” to get by.
Just a suggestion.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.