Restoration of Values
Tag Archives: Supreme Court
I heard on a Sunday a sermon by a bishop, on the defining features of a Christian. (He was talking to Catholics, but his words apply to all Christians.) He formulated them as commands: “We must live our faith, profess our faith, and – if necessary – defend our faith.” (The bishop did not start with: “We must know our faith.” He trusted the congregation to have satisfied that prerequisite.)
The first of these commands orders our existence both inside and outside our intimate circle. The last two govern our life outside it. At present, however, our public life as Christians affected by the misconception that manifestations of faith must be private, hidden from the public. Restrictions on practicing the Christian faith are based strictly on the preferences of Supreme Court Justices. The other two branches of government have not imposed such restrictions and occasionally have resisted them.
The constraint is attributed to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, or rather the interpretation by the Supreme Court of the reply of President Jefferson to a letter from the Danbury Baptist Association. The Baptists noted that previously laws and custom considered the practice of religion as a privilege, or favor granted, and expressed the hope that in the new form of government it would be an inalienable right. Jefferson allayed their apprehension stating that the establishment clause builds “a wall between Church and State.” He did not actually mean to make a fundamental statement, but a political one. He explained to his Attorney General that the letter was intended to please people in places like Virginia, “being seasoned to the Southern taste only.”
The nature of relations between church and state in the mind of the framers of the Constitution can be better ascertained from the actions of George Washington, the President of the Constitutional Convention. As commander-in-chief, he issued an order to his troops: “All chaplains are to perform divine service tomorrow, and on every succeeding Sunday. . . . The commander in chief expects an exact compliance with this order, and that it be observed in future as an invariable rule of practice – and every neglect will be consider[ed] not only a breach of orders, but a disregard to decency, virtue and religion.” Thus, Washington did not presume that the government should choose chaplains for the army, but on the other hand assumed with no hesitation that the soldiers should pray on army time, in army facilities, and have the government pay for the chaplains they chose.
Another proof that the excision of religion from public life was not in the minds of the framers of the constitution comes from John Adams: “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The opposite interpretation arose only in the twentieth century, and its restrictions have been broad, as well as capricious. For example:
– Opening of town board meetings with a prayer offered by members of the clergy is allowed. So is opening a state legislature’s session with a prayer by a state-paid chaplain. The rationale is “the unique history of US,” as shown by examples. Inviting, however, a member of the clergy to deliver a prayer at a high school graduation (at no cost), or teachers setting aside one minute each day for meditation or voluntary prayer, is unacceptable.
– A nativity scene in front of a public building is forbidden, whereas a large menorah placed together with a Christmas tree is not, because the menorah “has become a secular symbol,” while a nativity scene displayed together with a Christmas tree, a Santa Claus house and a “Season’s Greetings” sign was ruled as having “legitimate secular purposes,” and thus acceptable.
– The placement in County Court houses in Kentucky of a “Foundations of American Law & Government Display,” containing nine framed documents of equal size (Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, etc.), one of them being the Ten Commandments, was struck down, but a monument with the Ten Commandments at the Texas Capitol, together with other monuments “designed to illustrate the ideals of those who settled in Texas,” was approved. One of the reasons given was that “(t)he physical setting of the monument suggests little or nothing of the sacred.” The two rulings were issued on the same day.
It is noticeable that the Court has been stricter in denying the right of religious practice to students than to other classes of citizens, and also that its pronouncements have been supremely arrogant. Thus, the majority opinion (by Justice Anthony Kennedy) denying the students the right to hear an invocation at their graduation, reads: “The principle that government may accommodate the free exercise of religion does not supersede the fundamental limitations. . . ” As the Danbury Baptists feared in 1801, the practice of religion has become a favor which the sovereign (here the Supreme Court) may extend, rather than an inalienable right.
The thesis that religion has to be excluded from the public sphere can be counteracted with the Supreme Court’s own arguments: the protection of the First Amendment is meant specifically for the public sphere, because private practice of religion is protected by the right to privacy, established earlier by the Court.
There is also a fundamental objection to the position that the first Amendment requires imposition of secularism on the public life of citizens. As Marxists correctly understood, there are only two philosophical systems: materialism and spiritualism (called by them idealism). The two are opposed and mutually exclusive. Anything else reduces to one of them. Here, philosophy means the fundamental representation of the world and of life (world view, best expressed by the German Weltanschauung). Secularism is a form of materialism. The government, being constitutionally prohibited from taking sides, cannot promote secularism at the expense of religion. The Court’s view that pupils are “compelled by law to go to school for secular education” is an abuse.
That being said, scraping acceptance for religious displays via conjunction with unrelated messages is demeaning. We should publicly celebrate Christmas as a holy day, rather than on account of any “secular purposes,” and display the Ten Commandments for what they are, not in a setting suggesting “nothing of the sacred.” Christians should not degrade their faith. Likewise, when a judge forbade a graduation prayer devised and offered by the students, the reaction was to decry the loss of an eighty-year-old tradition. A tradition, no matter how long, was not itself worth the fuss; Christian students should reject the ruling by the judge for more fundamental reasons. Moreover, if there really was a conflict between the Constitution and the Ten Commandments, Christians would stand on the side of the Ten Commandments.
In reality, the problem is not with the Constitution, but (in Justice Rehnquist’s words) with the Court’s majority’s “hostility to all things religious in public life.” There are two possible responses, one confrontational, the other not. For the former, a threatened religious display can be defended in the manner in which citizens have defended a Nevada rancher when the government tried to confiscate his cattle. For the latter, Christians should determine which is their hierarchy of values. In other words, if prayer before football games is forbidden, should Christians give up prayer, or football? The answer to such a question was given by a Utah team qualified for the Little League Regional tournament, which chose to forfeit a game, rather than play on Sunday. The same uncompromising attitude was shown by the basketball team of an Orthodox Jewish school in Texas, which gave up its participation in the state semifinal game, because it was scheduled on a Friday night.
There is no need, however, that Christian students give up competitive sports; they should only refuse to play on the school team and start a private league open to students. If there are Christians in town, they will prefer to watch the independent league games.
In the same manner, Christian students can refrain from participating in official graduation exercises, request their diplomas from the school office, and organize a private graduation ceremony, in a club or barn, inviting all teachers and school officials who would care to attend. In a few years this could become the main event and the citizens might vote to remove the money for the secular graduation ceremony from the school budget.
Town council members could arrange to meet on the street in front of the building before the official meeting is scheduled to start, and pray for the success of their official work due to begin in a short while.
If the Ten Commandments on the lawn, or even the corridor of an official building, are objected to, the space can be sold to a private nonprofit organization that would then allow the government entity to use it.
We could find ways to neutralize the antireligious dictates of courts, perhaps with some effort and inconvenience, at least at the beginning. We would not mind the inconvenience . . . if we were Christians.
 John Adams, Reply to Massachusetts Militia, Oct. 11, 1789; Adams Microfilm, Reel 119, i.e., The Adams Family Papers, housed in the MA Historical Society
 V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empiriocriticism, Ten questions to a lecturer; http://www.wsws.org/IML/materialism/