“Public” word games and the Establishment Clause

In yesterday’s Washington Post, William Raspberry ceded the job of thinking about the relationship between church and state to Kevin “Seamus” Hasson of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (Source: WaPo 7/11/05).

According to Hasson, the “problem” with the decision in McCreary County, Kentucky, et al. v. ACLU of Kentucky et al., is that it considers the intention motivating governmental displays of religious objects in deciding whether they violate the first amendment’s establishment clause (Source: Findlaw).

Hasson, like many religious conservatives attempting to find an anti-religious stance in governmental neutrality, when there is little reason to find it, he simply asserts it. For example, he argues against the test for religious purpose as follows:

>”The ‘predominantly religious’ test suggests that anything not predominantly secular must be religious. It in fact has strong anti -religious overtones.”

If it is the case that “secular” here means “non-religious” then, yes, anything not predominantly non-religious must be predominantly religious. How one finds “strong anti-religious overtones” in this tautologically true sentence, however, is a bit mysterious.

But his purpose is to assert that the requirement of neutrality leads precisely to this hostility–not, of course, on the basis of any evidence or argument:

>”There’s nothing in common sense — and certainly nothing in the First Amendment — that requires government hostility to publicly expressed religion, which is where the requirement that government be ‘secular’ takes you,” he says.

Everyone would, I take it, grant that the first amendment does not requires the government to be hostile to publicly expressed religion (since it is, in fact, designed to guarantee that possibility). It obviously does not follow, however, that the “requirement that government be ‘secular’ implies such a hostility (at least not without considerable argument that Hasson neglects to offer). One might as well argue that because umpires are required to maintain neutrality betwen the teams that they are therefore hostile to the teams.

But Raspberry opines:

>Hasson is not just playing word games. He thinks the notion that religion should be expressed only in private — and never in the context of government — is a serious misreading of human nature.

But Raspberry’s protestation aside, we can easily see that Hasson is in fact just “playing word games”–specifically, he is confusing, whether deliberately or not, two senses of “public” (and so also two senses of “private”).

>We don’t believe in private because we don’t live in private,” . . .”This has always been the case. We believe, so we daub paint on prehistoric cave walls, spend generations building cathedrals, sculpt the David, compose the ‘Messiah’ and write ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’ The personal thing to do is, and always has been, not to keep our beliefs private but to express them in culture. . . . It’s how we’re made.”

In one sense, the word means something like displayed/occuring socially (as in, “public drunkenness”)and in the other it means displayed/occuring socially by the government (as in, “public works”). Certainly public (as in drunkenness) religious displays should be protected by the courts. But the First Amendment seems to, fairly clearly, require that the government not engage in public (as in works) displays of religious establishment. And, as the courts have reasonably argued, the display of the ten commandments for non-predominantly secular purposes amounts to such a public establishment.

But Hasson isn’t finished trying to muddy the waters:

>”Religion has a natural role in culture — almost like ethnicity. And both, being categories over which people have killed each other, require scrutiny. But isn’t it interesting that our courts are never clogged with Anglophiles trying to enjoin St. Patrick’s Day parades, or with whites and Asians trying to stop Black History Month? Mayors can — and do — wear green on March 17, while taking no position on the relative merits of being Irish. It should be the same with Christmas and Hanukah.”

This is clearly a bad analogy. Certainly mayors wear green and crosses or whatever else they as individuals would like publicly (as in drunkeness) to display. Setting aside that the holiday is a secular one for most participants–they cannot, establish it as a public (as in works) holiday.