Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bearing False Witness

This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, a case in which a new age cult has won, in the lower court, the right to place a stone monument inscribed with the "Seven Aphorisms" of its faith in the same park that already contains a similar stone containing the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament.

This is an interesting case for a number of reasons, but what it got me thinking about was the propensity for religious public officials and their lawyers to lie when it comes to defending governmental endorsement of religion. It's my observation the propensity for outright prevarication about officials' motives in these cases is so great that the courts, the media, and the public don't even seem to take notice of it any more. The Pleasant Grove City case demonstrates what a tangled web can be woven when government officials try to get around the Constitution's prohibition of the establishment of religion.

In 1971, the Fraternal Order of Eagles donated the Ten Commandments monument for placement in a city park in Pleasant Grove City, Utah. In 2003, Summum, one of several strange religious groups based in Salt Lake City, applied to the city government for permission to donate their religious monument for erection in the same park. The city fathers rejected the Seven Aphorisms monument. But they didn't tell the truth about why they did so. The real reason that they were rejecting the cult's request was simple: a vast majority of the citizens and officials of Pleasant Grove City believe the Ten Commandments to be divinely ordained by the Creator; none of them think the same of the Seven Aphorisms. Instead of just saying that, the mayor wrote a letter claiming that the city was applying some (made-up after the fact) unwritten rule that allowed them to accept for placement in the park only displays that were relevant to the town's history.

The Mayor told this lie because his lawyer told him that, if he told the truth, his city would be violating the First Amendment's prohibition on the establishment of religion, but that the Court of Appeals had suggested in an earlier case that this "town history" gambit might work. So, the case is grinding on and on wasting dollars and other resources that governments and tax-exempt entities like Summum and the fundamentalist non-profit law firm representing the city could be devoting to worthwhile activities like educating our children or replacing our infrastructure.

There is, of course, a simple way to avoid all this never-ending litigation. Leave the Ten Commandments, the Seven Aphorisms, the crosses, the crucifixes, the Islamic crescents, the Magen Davids, the creches, the menorahs, and all the other religious totems in the churches, mosques, synagogues, and other private property where they belong. But our religious fellow citizens are not willing to do that for a very simple reason: despite what the First Amendment says, they want to establish their religion. Christian fundamentalists believe that this is a Christian nation and that non-Christians are second or third-class citizens, and nothing makes that point like the cross in the city park or the Decalogue in the courthouse square. Putting it on the church lawn next door just won't do, and they feel so strongly on the issue that they're willing to violate the First Amendment AND the Ninth Commandment just to let the rest of know that they're in charge.


kateg said...

I don't think I want the Sunnum educating children, but ok.

I have been thinking a bit about religious persecution thanks to the Mormon's ongoing online backlash against the gay demonstrators that have been hounding them post-Prop 8. Mormons have been decrying demos as anti-Mormon bigotry.

I am not sympathetic. First, because vocal disagreemetn is not bigotry. Second, Mormons may be a marginally oppressed religious minority, but they are not oppressed by me, given that nobody of my religious persuasion could ever be considered even a semi-serious candidate for President.

And finally, while this nation was not founded as Christian nation, I recognize that it was founded on the principle of religious tolerance. I know religious freedom is part of the 1st amendment. Nevertheless, I have a hard time understanding the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of freely chosent ideas and philosophies, and deep down, I don't think religious ideas are special in that regard just because they are widely held. Discriminating among my ideas is my job, after all. Mormons have bad ideas, and not just about the gays.

This leads to a situation in which theocrats and I apparently have parallel concerns with the 1st amendment.

[caveat--this is not to say that I condone any persecution of religious communities past, present or future. Love the sinner, hate the sin, I suppose.]

Texan By Chance said...

I didn't say that I wanted Summum or ACLJ to educate our children, just that their tax-exempt resources could be used for such good purposes.

The religion clauses of the First Amendment do create a special status for religious speech as opposed to other speech (One of the unusual technical aspects of the case I am writing about is that it was litigated under the free speech clause of the amendment, not the religion clauses.) Basically, they mean that the government cannot make any judgment as to the truth or falsity of religious doctrine. They don't say anything about private citizens denouncing religions and their ideas.

I agree with you though that our culture tends to ignore this distinction. Generally, any discussion of the validity of specific religious ideas in the secular public square is seen as illicit bigotry. (Strangely enough, preachers are allowed to denounce other religions in their pulpits with somewhat more freedom.) To some extent, this is simply a recognition of the necessity for tolerance in a society with a multiplicity of faiths, but I agree that it can be frustrating, particularly because the rule seems to have less force when it is applied to nonbelievers.

Anyway, the First Amendment, as a legal rule, does not prohibit gay demonstrators from denouncing Mormons. Indeed, the speech clause protects such activities.

You may be right that, in a perfect world, the law would not give any special protection to religious ideas or identities, but I don't think we've reached that point yet. I still feel like the prohibition on "establishment of a religion" helps folks like me more than it hurts us.