Sunday, November 01, 2009

Polluting the Separation of Church and State

Difference between separation of Church and State and the exclusion of religion

In what is quickly being described as the first shot in the "annual war against Christmas", a man in Michigan is suing the Road Commission of his county for what he describes as the "right" to erect an eight foot by eight foot nativity scene on the median of a local highway.

John Satawa's family has erected the scene every year for 63 years. But this year Satawa was ordered to remove the scene because he had not applied for a permit.

Fair enough.

But when Satawa applied for the permit, it was rejected because it "clearly displays a religious message". It turns out that the Warren County Road Commission had received a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation about the display.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is based out of Wisconsin.

Robert Hoefner, the Road Commission employee who rejected the application, insisted that to allow the display would represent the state taking sides on a religious issue.

What Hoefner apparently failed to discern was that by bowing to a complaint by a non-constituent, they already had. And it was on that note that they actually violated their own interpretation of the First Amendment of the US Contstitution.

The reason why this is so is best explained by Benjamin Barber. In A Place for Us, Barber argues that the separation of church and state does not entail banshing religion entirely from the public sphere. Rather, Barber posits, religious displays in the public square should be fully allowed, so long as it isn't the state organizing the display.

Barber posits that these displays are of benefit to civil society as they essentially represent a form of cultural exchange and promote understanding between otherwise separate groups.

John Satawa has every right to the opportunity to make use of the public commons as any other individual, including the FFRF, who are now effectively occupying that space by refusing to allow anything they oppose to occupy it.

Most importantly, allowing Satawa to display his nativity scene on public land doesn't violate the separation of church and state, as it is not the state's display. The display is Satawa's, and he remains responsible for it. The state could -- and should -- allow displays from any other religious group (including the FFRF) and still never have taken a position on a religious issue.

Facilitating public debate and cultural exchange through the authorization of the use of the public commons is not taking a side.

Banishing religion from the public commons, however, is taking a side. It's taking the side of the fundamentalist atheists (or, as the FFRF describes themselves, "nontheists").

The issue is now, once again, a matter for the courts. It's hard to say if John Satawa will win his case and the privlege (not a right, per se, any more than anyone has the right to never have to look upon a religious display) to erect his nativity scene.

But he should. And if he doesn't, it will only be another sign of how successfuly atheist groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation have managed to pollute the notion of separation of church and state with their own religious values.

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