“Equality Should Never Be Mistaken For Hostility”

“Some might view a rule against preferential treatment as exhibiting hostility toward religion, but equality should never be mistaken for hostility”—Judge Barbara B. Crabb, FFRF v. Geithner

When decades of deference
Yield to one’s preference
One can’t help but feel one’s virility!
As such, abrogation
Feels more like castration:
Equality feels like hostility!

When unequal treatment,
Alas, to defeat went,
It hampered one’s amiability
It saddens me greatly,
The things I’ve seen lately—
Equality feels like hostility!

The rules that one follows,
The treatment one swallows,
When seen as mere pawns, not nobility;
Old privilege relaxes—
We have to pay taxes?
Equality feels like hostility!

It feels like it’s malice;
One’s parsonage palace
Possesses no public utility?
Its worth, despite searches
Is merely the church’s?
Equality feels like hostility!

This horrible feeling
Means, clearly, appealing—
And winning, in all probability;
The free exercise clause
Will excuse them, because
Equality feels like hostility!

Churches of all stripes have, for decades, enjoyed various tax exemptions under US tax code, because reasons. Reasons. Reasons, dammit! As the sponsor of the 1954 bill in question, Rep. Peter Mack, argued :

Certainly, in these times when we are being threatened by a godless and anti-religious world movement we should correct this discrimination against certain ministers of the gospel who are carrying on such a courageous fight against this. Certainly this is not too much to do for these people who are caring for our spiritual welfare

Not every legal opinion is fun to read. This one is. This was the case where the best (perhaps only) argument the government had was to claim that the atheist co-presidents of the Freedom from Religion Foundation were… clergy, thus deserving of the tax break and in no position to sue. A simple look at Mack’s quote above is enough to show the silliness there, but the full opinion is a marvelous 43 pages of smackdown.

I’m sure it will be appealed, and I dread the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Oh, yeah… buy my book:
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In The Near Distant Future, A Christian Looks Back With Regret

Remember the days when “Majority rules!”
Was the rallying cry in our town halls and schools?
We’d meet by the hundreds and kick up a fuss—
The majority, then, were the People Like Us.
The People Like Us (or for short, PLU’s)
Were the people believing in similar views;
PLU’s making up the majority there,
We wanted our meetings begun with a prayer
It would always be Christian, or often enough
We could simply ignore the minority stuff;
At most, we’d be waiting for maybe a week
Till the time when a Christian had our turn to speak.

We wanted the prayer to be part of the law
The majority view was the way that we saw!
Town meetings that open by praying to Jesus
Are all that we wanted… and all that would please us.
So we voted. Of course, when the vote went our way,
We were happy, cos all PLU’s had their say
Because we had the power to get something done
And minority groups held but little or none
And everyone listened, when we gave the word,
And no one complained… at least, no one we heard.
The majority’s right; the majority’s strong;
The majority voted… so what could go wrong?

We’d never considered… the thought was too strange…
But the fact is that, sometimes, majorities… change.
We were once the majority—my, we were proud;
We demanded our way! We were brash! We were loud!
How I wish we’d thought then, because now is too late,
Of the dangerous mixing between church and state,
And I wish we’d considered some sort of a wall
So the church and the state couldn’t mingle at all
Because government prayer is a thing we condemn,
Now the voting majority’s People Like Them
We got what we wanted, so we hold the blame…
It’s majority rules! What a shame! What a shame!

So a recent new follower of mine on twitter is the communications director for the National Day of Prayer Task Force. These folks are looking at Greece, NY, as a landmark case that will help to codify government-led prayer. The above verse is my thinking–I cannot imagine why any religious person would ever willingly choose to give the government the power to back a specific religious view (or even a general one). History is full of the waxing and waning of faith communities; a “majority rules” that favors your religion today is the same law that confers second-class status on you tomorrow. Giving up your independence to hitch yourself to power seems like a good idea when the power goes your way… but the success of religions in the US comes from their independence from government, not from their close ties.

Hey, Let’s Decide Your Rights With A Poll!

The cross is there, on public land;
It’s been there fifty years.
The courts will say it cannot stand;
So, surely, it appears.
The local Christians see the case
A battle for our soul
Instead of legal argument…
It’s time to run a poll.

In Middleboro, MA, there is a cross on the median strip of a bit of Route 28. A 7-foot cross of red brick, with the word “WORSHIP” in faded white letters, that has been there for 50 years, since the Kiwanis club constructed it. The grassy island is owned in part by the city, in part by the state, but

In an effort to resolve the matter, the state and county agreed to donated their shares of the island to the town, which in turn will sell it to the local Kwianas Club.

At least one citizen is worried there will be trouble:

Jeff Stevens lobbied town meeting to stay out of the fray, fearing the town will become embroiled in a lawsuit threatened by the American Civil Liberties Union.

“This is not a Middleboro problem,” Stevens said. “It will open up our town to legal challenges.”

I’m sure you can guess how the vote went:

Town meeting ignored Stevens’ petition by a wide margin and supported selectmen 228 to 10. The vote drew a round of applause.

It’s like Cranston, and Jackson, and so many more… never happened.

Anyway, there is currently a poll at the site, asking your opinion of the cross– is it “a religious symbol that has no place on public property”, or “an appropriate expression of religious freedom”? As of now, it’s roughly two to one the wrong way.

“Operation Good Shepherd” Sends Evangelists To Crime Scenes… Who Could Complain?

In Montgomery, Alabama,
As the victim of a crime
You might want the cops to move
A little faster
They’ll be there, if you are lucky,
In the very nick of time,
But they’ll make one stop
To bring along a pastor

When they bring along “Good Shepherds”
They don’t mean the K-9 corps—
But evangelists, whose job
Is just to preach
Simply spreading Christianity
Is what this program’s for—
And at crime scenes, there’s
An audience to reach

It’s a blatant violation
Of our first amendment rights!
This conjoining of a
Pastor and a cop…
It’s a weapon for the church—
The constitution in its sights—
Alabama’s got to understand,
And stop!

Seriously, what? Montgomery, Alabama is using public funds “to place Evangelical Christian Pastors at crime scenes“. I can’t see why American Atheists might object to that… I mean, other than every single thing about it.

Maybe this is all just a misunderstanding…

The department’s official chaplain Corp. David Hicks said in an interview on Christian radio, “What we want to do is combine the religious community and the Montgomery Police Department and we want to unite those as one.”

Ah. No, then.

Can’t wait to see how this one plays out.

Christian Plaintiff Wins Jesus Portrait Case In Jackson, OH

The Jesus portrait has to go,
We finally agree
It’s like you told us long ago
Before we paid your fee
If we had only listened then
We might have known you’re right…
But someone hollered “atheist!”
And so we had to fight.

We didn’t think the painting
Would offend a Christian soul—
We thought it was the atheists
Exerting their control
But freedom of religion means
A Christian can complain
When schools promote religion
When they’d really best abstain.

In Jackson, where the headlines say
“The atheists have sued”
It seems the story’s incorrect—
The facts are misconstrued—
One plaintiff is a Christian girl
It chastens us to say
Who saw the Jackson painting, but
Views Christ a different way

And victory for atheists
(As all the papers say)
Is victory for her as well
The schools, of course, must pay
We’ve learned a costly lesson, here
In Jackson public schools:
Tradition might speak loudly, but…
The constitution rules

I missed it Friday, but the parties have reached a settlement in Jackson, Ohio, and the portrait of Jesus has to go. Reactions are … predictable. It’s an ACLU and FFRF “Shakedown”, with the lawyers getting some $80,000 (which they had warned the schools about) and plaintiffs getting “the paltry sum of $3,000 each” (which I predict will be framed as sufficient motive that their suit can be dismissed as money-grubbing). Of course, nearly every report labels it an “atheist lawsuit”, which is worth unpacking.

A local news channel, WSAZ, has a nice collection of the major events in the case, updated at every turn (though the video at the top is not current). But even there, there is no mention of one fact that spoils everyone’s narrative.

One of the plaintiff children is a Christian. From the FFRF complaint:

Plaintiff Same Doe 2, attends Jackson Middle School and views the portrait of Jesus every day when Plaintiff walks through the entranceway to the Middle School. Sam Doe 2 identifies as a person of Christian faith and is offended by the religious portrait hanging in Jackson Middle School because it portrays the image of Jesus in a manner that is inconsistent with said Plaintiff’s religious beliefs and expresses the Christian faith in a way that distorts Sam Doe 2’s own beliefs about morality and religion.

The promotion of one view of Christianity does not just offend non-Christians, it offends other Christians who do not share that particular view. It is trivially true that different Christian faiths disagree with one another–and this was clearly the case during the writing of the constitution, when (for instance) Catholics were viewed as a threat to local governance.

This is precisely the sort of thing the first amendment was meant to deal with, and this is precisely the outcome that could be seen from months ago.

Wait… I Thought All The Best Scientists Were Christians!

The Pacific Justice Institute is fighting the “forced atheistic teaching” of elementary school children in Kansas. Apparently, the new science standards are incompatible with theistic religious beliefs.

It’s a legal violation!
It’s our first amendment right!
So we won’t give up our ignorance,
At least without a fight!

We can’t teach our children science
Kids as young as five years old—
Much too young to know the truth about
The things that they are told!

It’s the right of each American,
Which no one can besmirch,
To maintain beliefs force-fed them
By their parents and their church

These beliefs must go unchallenged!
Unopposed at every turn!
If we teach our children science,
There’s a chance that they might… learn!

What I want to do, is to gather up the plaintiffs and lawyers in this case, and put them in a box with the folks who collect theistic scientists to prove that science is on the side of religion, and then tape the box shut and seal them inside with a limited supply of oxygen run the “Three Christs of Ypsilanti” experiment with them. Does science prove god exists? Is science incompatible with religion? Is teaching young kids science brainwashing them? Is teaching them religion?

On Taking Sides, And Town Meeting Prayers

Our founders had their different faiths, and with those faiths as guides
They determined that our government should not be taking sides

That couplet, excerpted from this earlier verse, is the crux of the matter in Greece, NY. In the most recent must-read piece, SCOTUSblog, and author Carl Esbeck, dissects the matter of the case (I’ll only briefly quote here–the whole thing is well worth the time):

Can government knowingly take sides in a matter of religious belief or practice? More to the point, can government actively support a practice that is explicitly religious, such as prayer? This is the issue in Town of Greece v. Galloway as it ought to be framed.

Quoting with approval from Marsh v. Chambers, the Town’s main brief states that the purpose of legislative prayer is “[t]o invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws.” The practice not only calls upon a God or gods, but to a Divinity interested and active in human affairs. Why else invoke guidance? This act of prayer is thus consistent with some religions but not others. Deists, for example, believe in an impersonal God. A policy of legislative prayer is doubtlessly taking a side, and no phony pluralism dressed up as “nonsectarian” prayer – a vague theism not actually practiced by anyone – can cover up that fact.

The ubiquitous internet commenters who point to Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists love to claim that the first amendment is not intended to protect government from religion, but to limit government meddling and thus protect religion from government. Esbeck’s piece painstakingly explains why the protection of government from church is protection of church from government.

The divisiveness within the body politic that is a proper concern starts when government takes sides in favor of an explicitly religious practice. Political struggle will likely ensue to seize control of the machinery of government. The purpose for which factions seek control is that the one in power decides the question of continued favoritism of the religious practice. The solution, however, is not to suppress the political struggle which is protected free speech. The solution is to fix the cause of the divisiveness, namely for the courts to start enforcing the taking-sides rule.

Political divisiveness is thus not itself a violation of the Establishment Clause. But it’s a warning sign that the taking-sides rule has gone neglected. Of course, divisiveness within the larger civil society will continue. That’s just pluralism. What will subside is the struggle to seize the levers of power with the aim of controlling whether government continues to take sides in favor of a religious practice.

Mind you, so long as the majority is winning, won’t they be fine with that? What’s to persuade the Christian majority in Greece that the invocation isn’t a good thing despite the entanglement?

In Greece, N.Y., religion prays at the suffrage of the Town Board. The Board, in turn, sought to invoke God’s guidance. But that’s not what the Board got. It instead got an invocation open to all willing locals, including Wiccans and atheists, who, because the Board could not be censorious prayer police, were permitted to say (pray?) whatever they wanted. How did things go so far astray? Presumably because the Board was following advice of legal counsel to “do prayer” federal judges would uphold. In the end, religion was corrupted. That was preventable by a government attentive to Establishment Clause dos and don’ts.

Once you let one in, you let them all in, and you run the risk (as happened recently in Arizona) of an improper and inadequate prayer by the “wrong” people, which you then have to make up for with additional invocations. Of course, then, any other religion must have the same right to make up for your prayer with one of their own, and so on, and so on… And it could not be more clear that these invocations are absolutely not for the benefit of the town, but for the purposes of the churches themselves.

Ultimately religion does not exist to sustain the political order. It’s not a program for municipal improvement or to bless those who take up civic duties. When government uses religion as a tool to achieve its political goals, the danger to religion is that it becomes a courtier in the halls of State.

Cranston’s New Banner

The sign on the wall reads “No Christians Allowed”—
… Except for the fact that it doesn’t.
There’s a banner in Cranston, replacing the prayer—
The prayer that the Christians said wasn’t.

No “Heavenly Father”, no “Prayer”, no “Amen”
Just a pledge of good will and respect.
So it’s either much better the way that it is…
Or the banner the atheist wrecked.

Thus begins a new chapter; it’s time to move on
And the people are very excited
So the threw a small party, to show they were healed…
But Jessica wasn’t invited.

This verse isn’t so much about the new Cranston banner (which it actually is about) as it is about the reaction to this banner at The Blaze (which is quite different from the reaction at The Friendly Atheist).

Comments at the Blaze have a familiar ring to them–people are sick of God being taken out of our Judeo-Christian society; we are encouraged to embrace all diversity… except Christians; Jessica’s success was really and actually because God was on her side (I am not making that up). Christians should complain that the current banner offends them; Jessica is pondscum (sic); the judge misrepresented the first amendment, cos Congress didn’t put this banner up… It’s all there.

For the backstory on Cranston, here are the cliff notes.

One member of the class of 1963 (donors of both the original and the new banner), Janice Bertino, is quoted: “The community is healed. There is no more controversy.”

Let’s hope she’s right.

Let’s hope they don’t read The Blaze.

Obama Sides With Church, Against State

Obama, the atheist Muslim-in-chief
Is engaged in a stealth operation
By submitting a letter that aims to cause grief
To church and state separation

It baldly attacks the establishment clause
(Which you’ll easily find, if you search)
A town prayer is clearly at odds with our laws,
But the president sides with the church!

The religious don’t like him, but nevertheless
Obama’s the church’s best friend
What he’s doing is wrong, and it’s frankly a mess
And it’s time for the habit to end

It is so nice to run into superb writing on the internets, when so much is so terrible. A must-read piece on the Obama administration’s intervention in an establishment clause case in Greece NY finds this yet another instance in a clear and disturbing pattern:

The intervention by the White House in support of official sanction for religion represents one of the most direct and open federal attacks on the separation of church and state—a core democratic principal of the US republic enshrined in the first sentence of the Bill of Rights—in American history. That the revolutionary founders who drafted the Bill of Rights, inspired by the Enlightenment, considered the ban on any official state sanction of religion fundamental to all other democratic rights is indicated by the fact that it precedes the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of speech, press and assembly.

The Obama administration’s decision to intervene in opposition to the separation of church and state is entirely in line with its general assault on democratic rights and its ceaseless efforts to placate and encourage the most right-wing political forces in the country. It follows Obama’s capitulation last year to the Catholic Church and other anti-abortion forces that oppose a provision of his health care overhaul requiring employers to provide contraceptives to their employees free of charge.

It also conforms to the administration’s support for indefinite detention without judicial process for alleged terrorists, its practice of extra-judicial assassinations, including of US citizens, and its defense of state surveillance of the telephone calls, emails, text messages and Internet searches of all Americans and countless millions of people around the world.

The authors (Ed Hightower and Barry Grey) summarize the facts of the case (I won’t cut and paste here; rather, I’ll strongly recommend reading the entire piece, if only to contrast it with the presentation at other sites), then succinctly put it into constitutional context:

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The Fourteenth Amendment extends this ban (“Congress shall make no law, etc.”) to state governments. Municipal governments, such as the town of Greece, derive their authority from state law.

The American revolutionaries understood that there was an inextricable connection between the union of clerical and state power and the suppression of individual liberty. Their view was that separation of church and state was a precondition for democracy.

To cite Thomas Jefferson’s famous quotation: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

Hightower and Grey summarize the Obama administration’s arguments, and rather damningly contrast the current stance to Kennedy’s (1960) deliberate and proper position of independence of government from any religious source.

It’s an excellent read.

Yet Another Place To Tag “In God We Trust”

One task that falls to governments
Of each of our united states
Is regulating new designs
That ornament our license plates.
Some groups are favored: some are not—
You know the trouble this creates—
And governments start taking sides
(in search of votes) in these debates.
Wisconsin, now, will be the scene
As two designs await their fates
Will Madison, this week, approve
“In God We Trust”? The nation waits.

If you want to support the Veterans Trust Fund in Wisconsin, the good news is that there may soon be a license plate you can buy to donate to the group and publicly show your support. The bad news is, if you are an atheist and want to support the VTF, your public support will come with “In God We Trust” on this special license plate.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is taking issue with an “In God We Trust” license plate that soon could be available in Wisconsin.

“It sends an exclusionary message,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, the Madison-based group’s co-president and co-founder. “First of all, if a non-believer wanted to help out veterans they are going to be precluded from buying this plate. This is obviously an attempt to push religion.”

An attempt to push religion? Of course not… not when viewed from the privileged perspective of a religious majority:

The initial $15 cost of the plate will be donated to the state’s Veterans Trust Fund. Each additional year, a $25 donation will be paid by the license plate owner, with the money going toward the state Department of Veterans Affairs for the care of residents in the state’s veterans homes.

A bill sponsor, Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah, said he doesn’t think the state’s offering of the license plate is too close a connection or blurring any lines between church and state.

“Nobody is being forced to get one,” Kaufert said. “This is on a completely voluntary basis.”

The state is simply taking the position that anyone who cares enough to donate to the Veterans Trust Fund must necessarily be a good, God-fearing, all-American sort. No one is forcing the unpatriotic, godless veteran-haters to buy a plate.

How could that possibly be blurring a church/state line?