August 22, 2004

OFF COURSE:

Chipping Away at the Wall: Americans shouldn't have to be religious in the closet, but that doesn't give public officials the right to exercise their religion at the expense of everyone they serve. (DAHLIA LITHWICK, 8/22/04, NY Times)

[N]early 80 years ago in Dayton, Tenn., an epic trial pitted the literal truth of the Bible against modern science. And when the Scopes monkey trial concluded, the presiding judge closed the proceedings as he'd opened them each day - with a prayer. [...]

The twin religious protections enshrined in the First Amendment - that one can freely exercise one's religion, and that the government cannot establish a state religion - are forced onto a collision course when public officials insist their personal religious freedom allows them to promote sectarian views in office. Yet with ever-increasing shrillness, we hear from elected or appointed officials that it's religious persecution to ask them to suspend sectarian prayer or practices on the bench, in the legislature or at the schoolhouse gate.

To be sure, the courts have made a hash of the First Amendment religion jurisprudence. A crèche on government property is constitutional so long as the manger includes a Malibu Barbie; and state aid to religious schools is constitutional if it's triangulated through the alchemy of parental choice. But the courts have not backed down from the principle that imposing sectarian religion in the public square violates the Constitution. Religious Americans have every right to insist they shouldn't have to be religious in the closet. But that doesn't give public officials some free-floating constitutional right to exercise their religion at the expense of everyone they ostensibly serve.

At the end of the monkey trial, H. L. Mencken wrote that Tennessee had seen "its courts converted into camp meetings and its Bill of Rights made a mock of by its sworn officers of the law." We are there again. Maybe the judge and the jury were right to convict Mr. Scopes for teaching something so absurd as Darwinism. We haven't evolved one bit.


Somehow she misses the point of her own vignette--no one considered the judge at the Scopes trial to be establishing a religion. It is only the modern assault on any exercise of religion in public that imagines this kind of traditional exercise to be violative of the "rights" of others.

She closes well though.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 22, 2004 9:21 AM
Comments

But that doesn't give public officials some free-floating constitutional right to exercise their religion at the expense of everyone they ostensibly serve.

Too bad "everyone" has no way to rein in public officials.

Posted by: David Cohen at August 22, 2004 10:52 AM

Not no one. I grew up there, and there was an established religion -- though not a single established church -- and if you cared to exercise your liberty as an American against it, you were like to a pay a serious price.

When I was a boy, we Catholics used to look forward to driving through Dayton to see the dueling billboards.

As you entered town: "Welcome to Dayton, international home of the Church of God."

As you turned the corner at the co'thouse, "Welcome to Dayton, international home of the Church of God in Christ."

It had nothing to do with doctrine, of course. Only real estate.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 22, 2004 3:22 PM

From Harry's compendium of self-refutation:

"there was an established religion -- though not a single established church"

Posted by: oj at August 22, 2004 5:21 PM

state aid to religious schools is constitutional if it's triangulated through the alchemy of parental choice

This misinterpretation of "aid to religious schools" is a pet peeve of mine. Lithwick (and many others) appear not to know that government scholarship money has long been spent on "religious schools." My father went to the Jesuit-run University of Detroit on the G.I. Bill after WWII, despite the fact that he wasn't Catholic. I suppose if the G.I. Bill didn't exist but came up today, Lithwick et. al. would object to it as a violation of the separation of church and state.

Posted by: PapayaSF at August 22, 2004 6:22 PM

It is not that we do not have an established religion, we do.

It is called the Church of the Secularist.

Their churches are called NGO's and perhaps the DNC.

Posted by: Uncle Bill at August 23, 2004 11:20 AM

It was a sin to play basketball on Sunday.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 24, 2004 1:58 PM

It's the Sabbath.

Posted by: oj at August 24, 2004 2:03 PM
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