Taking God Public

Where does God belong and who gets to decide? That sums up the debate underlying two new rulings by the … Continued

Where does God belong and who gets to decide? That sums up the debate underlying two new rulings by the United States Supreme Court and it seems to be a split decision.

In one case, the court ruled unanimously that authorities in Pleasant Grove, Utah, could maintain a Ten Commandments monument in Pioneer Park while rejecting a monument to the “7 Aphorisms” offered by a religious group called Summum. Typically, the claim is that demonstrating preference for one religious tradition over others violates the Constitution’s “establishment clause”. But in this case, the group which made the offer sued on the basis that the city council’s rejection of their offer constituted an infringement on free speech.

The leaders of Summum failed to recognize that governments make decisions about what to include and what to exclude from public parks all the time. But the fact that Summum lost does not mean that the city’s leaders made good public policy when they kept the Ten Commandments and rejected the Aphorisms.

In fact, the leaders of both Summum and the city council are guilty of a similar kind of religious arrogance, which is totally inappropriate. And were it not for the arrogance of the former, it is highly doubtful that the members of the court would have all reached a unanimous decision in favor of the latter.

The members of Summum insisted that they had the right to say what they wanted, where they wanted and how they wanted. Nobody has that right, which is why they deserved to loose. But the insensitivity of the city council is just as bad.

What makes politicians in Pleasant Grove, or anywhere else, think they have the right to allow the placement of some religious monuments in public, while choosing to reject others? Public officials engaging in that kind of choice-making process violate the constitution and threatens our religious freedom. And it’s troubling that because of the premise of those who brought the suit, the city council’s behavior went unchallenged by the court in this case.

Even more disturbing is the mocking tone of Justice Antonin Scalia’s words in writing about the Court’s decision. He said, “Pleasant Grove need not worry about breaching the ‘so-called’ wall of separation between church and state.” Is he kidding? And that’s a question coming from me, who believes that there ought to be room for religious displays in public places. It is not the job of government to assure that we live in a nation with a God-free or religion-free public square. In fact, it’s a dangerous practice to assure anybody’s freedom by curtailing that of others.

It is just as dangerous when government becomes the arbiter of which expressions of God or religion are allowed and which are not. So once the Ten Commandments are in, then other commandments, aphorisms, and sayings must be welcomed as well.
Anything short of a position which welcomes all, if it welcomes any, must fall. And who better than Mormons, who have been persecuted for generations, should know that? For a government comprised largely of those who have experienced some of the ugliest religious bigotry in our nation’s history to play casually with the marriage of religion and state power is simply amazing and simply unacceptable.

Having won their case, as they should have, the city council in Pleasant Grove should now either loose the Ten Commandments from Pioneer Park, or find some way to include Summum’s 7 Aphorisms — not because they endorse them equally, and not because they have no right to limit speech in public places, but because when it comes to people’s beliefs, doing otherwise threatens all of us.

By saying ‘yes’ to Summum, they are saying ‘no’ to precisely the kind of religious arrogance which harmed the Latter -day Saints. It’s the kind of religious arrogance to which the court also said no this week when it refused to hear a case from New Jersey regarding a high school football coach who wanted to lead his team in prayer.

Coach Marcus Borden liked to take a knee with his East Brunswick, N.J. team before games. The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, ruled that it was illegal for him to do so and the Supreme Court affirmed their decision by refusing to hear a further appeal. Thank God. And I mean that.

I believe that God and prayer are more than window dressing, and I believe that those who lead people in their relationships with either assume a very significant position of authority in the lives of those they lead. That is why coaches, or any other public officials should not freely assume such a role, especially over those whom they already have authority for other reasons.

Like the case in Utah, this is about the obligation of those in positions of power to exercise great caution with the power they have been granted, and great sensitivity over those whom they have it. Like the case in Pioneer Park, the failure on Coach Borden’s part is not his appreciation of the potentially unifying and focusing power of prayer, about which I think he is correct.

The coach’s failure lies in not considering those who don’t share his views. And when it comes to public religion, the first rule must always be, as it is in medicine, do no harm. About that, history shows us, there should be no debate.

Brad Hirschfield
Written by

  • coloradodog

    The neocon / neochristian Cheney Supreme Court recognizes Utah for what it is – an intolerant theocracy.

  • Bios

    Just a little observation, where it says “loose” it should read “lose”. On two counts.

  • CCNL

    All such monuments should have proper references on them. e.g. The Ten Commandments, ref 1. a poor man’s version of the Code of Hammurabi.

  • coloradodog

    The neocon / neochristian Cheney Supreme Court recognizes Utah for what it is – an intolerant theocracy.

  • Bios

    Just a little observation, where it says “loose” it should read “lose”. On two counts.

  • CCNL

    All such monuments should have proper references on them. e.g. The Ten Commandments, ref 1. a poor man’s version of the Code of Hammurabi.

  • Booklover1

    The Supreme Court decision in Summum was 9-0, meaning 4 liberal members agreed that there was no establishment violation or free speech violation. In fact, the case was not about that at all, so Utah and its people can hardly be accused (intelligently) of discriminating against other faiths. The Summum case was about GOVERNMENT speech, and the city of Pleasant Grove had properly exercised its rights in that regard. Mormons have a long history of being extremely tolerant of other faith groups, making freedom of all religions among the first city ordinances passed whenever they settled somewhere new — and electing to public office in Utah any number of Jews, Catholics, and Protestants, even in the 19th century, even when Mormons held overwhelming majorities.

  • CCNL

    Mormons tolerate other religions because it is business cult posing as a religion and as good business men they do not offend their customers.

  • coloradodog

    Booklover1 wrote:____________________________________–Maybe you lived in another Utah? My first remembrance of Mormon “tolerance” was my Catholic friend getting the sh*t beat out of him in Ogden in the third grade, and the snickers when another friend was “outed” as a Jew. Then in the fourth grade, the teacher said, “How many of you in this class are not LDS? Raise your hand” and none of those who did got As (although before and after I had an A average). In the 6th grade, my Mormon classmates told me that the Catholic Church was “the church of the Devil.” Then I remember in the 7th grade I got a B- with an average test score of 94% because “non-members couldn’t possibly understand Utah History the way a true believer could”. Then I remember in the 7th grade the glee when Kennedy got shot – “They finally killed that Catholic bas*tard!” Later, when I tried to get part time jobs, the first question was “What Ward do you go to, Brother?” The list goes on until my final escape for the “extremely tolerant” Utah Mormons.

  • edbyronadams

    I propose a rule to public monuments derived from religious text in which anything less that 1000 years old is banned but anything older is allowed. Religious legitimacy is related, like classic literature, to its staying power.Unfortunately for Pleasant Grove and other municipalities in Utah, that rule would delegitmizeSorry about that.

  • jngny

    God plays no favorites in sports. I hope the coach and his team are praying for their health and well-being rather than to win the game. Even then, they should be aware that football is a dangerous sport and tempting the Lord too much will only end in disaster. Doesn’t Scripture say that our prayers are not answered because we do not know what to prayer for? Now that the courts are not going to allow the coach to prayer with his team anyway, I suggest he practice humility by giving up a game or two to the other side from time to time. Fat chance of that ever happening!

  • jngny

    God plays no favorites in sports. I hope the coach and his team are praying for their health and well-being rather than to win the game. Even then, they should be aware that football is a dangerous sport and tempting the Lord too much will only end in disaster. Doesn’t Scripture say that our prayers are not answered because we do not know what to prayer for? Now that the courts are not going to allow the coach to prayer with his team anyway, I suggest he practice humility by giving up a game or two to the other side from time to time. Fat chance of that ever happening!