An acquaintance aware of my secularist activism asked me why I felt it was necessary to sue each time the G word was uttered in public. I laughed at what I thought was good natured teasing. It turned out he was deadly serious. I assured him that not only don’t I personally sue anyone (although 2 organizations that I am a member of do indeed file multiple lawsuits each year) I also don’t get upset when people of faith invoke their deity in public.
Even If I did get upset it wouldn’t matter because the person invoking or praying to their deity is protected by a guaranteed civil liberty. My right to be godless cannot encroach on their right to have a god in their life. The only time I would raise a voice of dissent would be in cases where a public school principal offered a prayer before a commencement ceremony or some other public event, for example. That is not appropriate.
However, a student wanting to publically thank their god while accepting an award or honor is just fine by me. The principal is a public official paid, in part, by taxpayer money. The student is a private citizen. I recognize this is a somewhat clumsy argument. But there it is. If the president started his state of the union address with the Lord’s Prayer it would probably move me to protest. The principal and president are examples of potential violations of the first amendment. At the same time both have first amendment rights too. Unfortunately, for them they ride that thin razor line between public officialdom and private citizenship. This is such a delicate balance.
When I throw my support behind a church and state separation issue it is because I believe a violation or potential abuse of the First Amendment is occurring. When the Secretary of Agriculture remarks that the current drought has left him frustrated as to what to do thereby forcing him to his knees in prayer I hardly see an issue. It’s just an individual expressing himself honestly. If he suggested that we have a national day of prayer or a religious based ritual aimed at obtaining supernatural relief from the drought I would protest.
Our holiday season is coming up and no doubt the two above mentioned organizations will start sending out emails describing lawsuits over nativity scenes or Christmas carols in school. The lawsuits often seem frivolous to me. But, thinking deeply on the issue allows me to see that yes, in most cases these do violate the civil rights of people who are not Christians.
Take for example the grammar school Christmas pageant of recent years. A public school allowing students to present such a program shows preferential treatment to Christians, although it is a punch in the nose to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Then there are there are Muslims, Jews, Hindus and non-believers to name just a few whose beliefs or worldviews are different.
Perhaps, some of these non-Christians share my lack of concern over nativity scenes and Christmas carols. I live in a predominantly Christian culture after all even though it is a secular one by law. However, we should be more concerned. The underlying problem goes much farther than just mere displays of religious symbolism. It is overt preferential treatment of one group to the exclusion of all others. It is the beginning of theocracy. That many don’t see it this way suggests that they haven’t thought much about it. The danger in being a part of the majority group is that your viewpoint is so ubiquitous that it is easy to assume everyone must think this way.
Well if the majority is Christian…
We live in a democratic republic. Ours is not a simple democracy. The majority carries the vote, of course, but not if they violate the civil liberties of the minority. It’s what makes the work of groups such as the American Atheists and Freedom from Religion Foundation so important. These organizations, founded to safeguard the civil liberties of secularists, protect the civil liberties of all Americans in the long run.
To wit, the lawsuit filed by American Atheists over the large cross placed on top of the 9/11 Museum in Manhattan. It would be very easy to dismiss this as just another crackpot attack by atheists against Christianity. But, it’s not. The lawsuit is about the preferential treatment of Christianity in our secular republic on a public monument or space.
David Silverman, President of American Atheists stated, “What we seek is any remedy that honors everyone equally, be they Christian, Muslim, Jew, or atheist. This can either be done with a totally neutral memorial that concentrates on the tragedy and not religion, or one that allows everyone to put up a display of equal size and prominence. In the latter case, we have offered to pay for a display ourselves. If everyone is provided equal treatment, we will drop our lawsuit because fair is fair.” (Macbain, 2012)
Attorneys representing the museum have declined to accept the compromise. If American Atheists was simply grousing about Christianity I might not be inclined to support the issue, even though they would still have a point. However, they seek a remedy that honors all groups affected. The defendant’s bias is evident and their unwillingness to allow equal representation for other groups is outrageous if not typical in our culture.
The Museum’s attorneys have argued that the cross tells part of the 9/11 story (Macbain, 2012) and on that point they are correct. However, it doesn’t tell the whole story. If the museum were privately owned, funded and maintained then we would have no argument. However, that is not the case and not allowing for other groups to be represented (if the court ultimately decides in favor of the defendant) demonstrates government preference for one religion over all others. Therefore it violates the first amendment and the cross must come down.
My personal preference is no religious symbolism but a symbol that demonstrates the unity and diversity of our nation. An American flag or a bald eagle might be more appropriate. A symbol designed especially for the Museum would be even better in my estimation.
Sometimes we secularist are cranky. Sometimes we are petty. I wish it was all sunshine and rainbows, but democracies are loud, messy and unruly. Civility and reason in discourse is preferential and I support those efforts, but sometimes the conversation will become volatile. But, the conversation must continue taking place. We can’t shut up. The stakes are too high. Those stakes are equal liberty under the law with no preferential treatment according to faith, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and economic status. My friend’s remark that collectively we sue each time someone utters God in public is disingenuous. Lawsuits, even ones that seem frivolous to our opponents, are engineered to ensure that you and I have the same rights despite our differing viewpoints. He should welcome our work as he will only benefit. There is no guarantee that if Christianity became the official state religion, which it won’t, that it would be the Christianity of his choosing.
Macbain, T. (2012, August 17). UPDATE—The World Trade Center Cross: A Fight for Equal Rights. Retrieved August 17, 2012, from American Atheists: http://www.atheists.org/update%E2%80%94-world-trade-center-cross-fight-equal-rights