Wednesday, July 12, 2006

One nation, (out from) under God, part III

So, as you may have guessed from my previous posts, I'm pretty much in favor of the separation of church and state. So does that mean I think religion has no place in government at all? No.

I think something needs to be said about the whole controversy over public displays of nativity scenes and monuments to the Ten Commandments. While I think there was a much bigger outcry over the issue this last year from many people (I'm not sure who, as I heard about a lot of it more or less second-hand.) that may not have been warranted, I don't think it's unreasonable to be a little ticked off when you are told that having a nativity scene displayed in a public place during Christmastime is somehow against the law. What exactly is the problem? In a town near me, they have a very nice solution, I think. They have a major intersection in the town in which one corner has a nativity scene, one corner has a Chanukkah menorah, one corner has a Kwanzaa Kinara and the fourth has a big sign that says "Happy Holidays!" In such a context, how can the nativity be a problem?

Well, for some people it is, and we go back to the First Amendment again, where those who are a little more knowlegeable (as opposed to many who just vaguely feel that it must be illegal) point to the "establishment clause". For some people, apparently the mere presence of a religious symbol on government-owned property indicates the "establishment" of a state religion. That is to say, if the local courthouse has a large stone engraved with the Ten Commandments, the clear message is, "If you're not of a religion that regards these commandments as law personally, then don't expect to receive any justice here."

Now I myself would want to look at context. The fact is, such an assessment may be correct. The recent example of a nationally notorious judge who had installed such a monument in front of his courthouse and refused to move it, may have indeed been an infringement of First Amendment rights, since I seem to recall the judge was trying to make an affirmation of a belief that the American justice system must abide first and foremost by God's law rather than the law of the land. (Again, see my previous post if you missed it.) I think it's clear that this can't work in a true democracy, and I also think it's funny that I never heard conservative voices decrying "activist judges" during this particular controversy.

On the other hand, if a courtroom wanted to have a display that included the Ten Commandments alongside other documents that were historically important in the development of modern law--such as the Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence, Magna Carta, Code of Hammurabi, etc., and whatnot--then why not? If all religions are represented, or if any religion that is represented is represented only insofar as it is important in a socio-historic context, then how is that "establishment" of a state religion? On the other hand, requiring that anything in the slightest bit religious be purged from the public eye seems to be setting up atheism as the state "religion". (Yes, I know atheism is not a religion, in case you were considering pointing that out to me; it is however often considered a religious classification.)

Back in February, I was on a business trip in Singapore. Once again, maybe this qualifies me as being a weird Christian, but I was delighted on some level to see such a wide variety of faiths openly on display in the city. It wouldn't be uncommon to walk down a street and pass an ostentatious Hindu Temple, witness a Buddhist festival, and spot a thriving church, all on the same block! I thought, why is it that we here in the United States can't just peacefully coexist side by side with people of other faiths, openly and warmly? Instead we have to do all we can to make sure that the religions of all others are suppressed.

Whatever happened to freedom of religion that caused it to be replaced by freedom from religion?

No comments: