Monday, May 5, 2014

The War on Religious Freedom

At some point later today, Andrew Sullivan will have a very long, insightful, far more thoughtful piece on today's Supreme Court 5-4 decision to allow "mostly Christian" prayers at city and town council meetings.  For now, however, you can have mine.

I won't retell the story here, suffice to say that the entire matter came before the Court by way of a challenge to a New York town's decision in 1999 to move from a moment of silence before council meetings to prayer.  While one side asserts that such a move violates the First Amendment and establishes Christianity as the town's religion, the town claims it has been inclusive and allowed other belief systems to be represented.
"The faith of the prayer giver does not matter at all," said John Auberger, Greece's board supervisor, who began the practice shortly after taking office. "We accept anyone who wants to come in and volunteer to give the prayer to open up our town meetings."

Three of the five majority Justices took a narrow view, but the more contentious Justices, Thomas and Scalia, pushed the envelope by suggesting that even if people take offense at the use of prayer, it should not be a reason to discontinue the practice.

Welcome to the American theocracy, my friends!  I don't really care that the Christian majority of most of our American towns and cities make a "reasonable" effort to be more inclusive of other belief systems.  The fact that this debate exists at all is a step too far against our religious freedom.  The subtle creep of religious expression upon our system of government continues unabated.  In America, we are free to express our religious beliefs as we choose, free from government pressure, and government is expressly forbidden by our Constitution to make a law "respecting the establishment of religion."  Realizing that the vast majority of American citizens believe in a supernatural deity, it is profoundly important for lawmakers at all levels of government to realize that no single religious view be seen as more important than any other.  The Christian majority should be highly sensitive to this need.  In all matters of government, therefore, public expressions of religion should be strictly forbidden.  Do you hear that, believers?  Forbidden!  If we have to have a debate about how much or how little religion to allow in government, lovers of liberty have already lost. 

These moves by local councils are not about religious freedom; they are about restricting religious expression by anyone other than Christians.  They are about the replacement of freedom with moralism.  Imagine you are a devout Muslim with business before a town council, which has just opened its meeting with a prayer offering thanks to Jesus Christ.  You have a beard, and you are seated next to your wife, who is wearing a hijab.  Your turn comes, and your name is horribly mispronounced by the old, white Christian man running the agenda.  You step up to the microphone and you correct the pronunciation of your name.  The council member apologizes, and continues to fail to pronounce your name correctly.  Your business before the council involves matters that involve obstacles to your religious practice.  You encounter someone on the council who is openly hostile to Islam and starts to question your motives as something other than religious practice.  How likely is it going to be that this person's repellent views are going to be shared by other members of the council, perhaps not quite so openly.  How likely are you to feel welcome to petition the council for other matters, religious or not, in the future?  Not very, I would say.

Watch for more tests of the establishment clause in the next few years.  Cases that revisit the idea of having the Ten Commandments in a courthouse.  Cases that push for prayer in public schools.  Cases that create litmus tests for the religious beliefs of candidates for public office. 

You don't agree?  When was the last time you could remember not seeing American citizens (mostly religious Christians) being openly contemptuous of other belief systems (it usually looks like complaints about their beliefs being trampled upon -- the persecution complex)? 

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