That was the title of an article I recently discovered from Slate magazine which both raised my interest as well as sparked a mild sense of irritation when I read the provocative headline. The catalyst for a slew of articles which have recently been published revolve around the Supreme Court case prosaically named “Town of Greece v. Galloway” in which the city council of Greece, N.Y. was accused by the plaintiffs of violating the Establishment Clause and their 1st Amendment rights when the council opened its public meetings with a prayer from one of the local religious leaders, almost all of whom were Christian.
I had heard about the case months ago when the Supreme Court initially heard oral arguments about it but I, like most people, quickly forgot about it once is disappeared from the headlines because, frankly, I had more immediate issues in my life to worry about. The Supreme Court ruled, in a close 5-4 decision, that opening civic events like city council meetings with prayers and invocations do not violate the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. Why then, if this were supposed to be a victory for religious liberty, was I so perturbed by the articles written by those lamenting the decision? Yes, it’s true, to the dismay of many perhaps in the mainstream media, I do often read articles and opinion pieces with which I often vehemently disagree and with those I do agree.
After having reflected on various arguments made both in favour and against the decision, I think three things in particular stand out in my mind which are most likely the reasons why I felt so irritated by the ostensibly simple title of the article. The first reason I think is that unlike my friends who happen to be atheists, both the writers of the articles dissenting from the Supreme Court decision as well as the plaintiffs themselves seem to have what one article called a sense of “evangelical atheism” running through them. Namely, that the atheists who have sued in court over the past few years over issues such as memorial crosses on public land, the Pledge of Allegiance, or this particular case, the plaintiffs have an almost religious zeal to exterminate references to God from public life. In other words, there seems to be a real hatred for anything religiously inspired or overtly religious in nature. In many ways though, on realising this, I felt sadness rather than anger for those in that position.
The second reason, I think, ties in closely with the first though has a somewhat more sinister twist; specifically, despite the fact that it is a militant or evangelical atheist’s (whichever label you like) right to bring a court case against whomever, both the principles for which they bring the case and the methods employed to achieve their goal are at their root, contradictory to their purported aims. In virtually all cases similar to Greece v. Galloway, the plaintiffs were politically liberal atheists. For whichever reason known only to these sorts of plaintiffs, I cannot understand why the plaintiffs, who claim to be fighting for liberalism, use illiberal methods to force their minority opinions on the majority. For the politically savvy observer, the majority vote has been a favourite argument among progressives for a number of years which is understandable given that a policy supported by the majority has a certain legitimacy associated with it.
Not so in many atheist sponsored court cases. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I figured that in a country in which between 70-90% of its population state they believe in a Supreme Being, the majority of people would, by virtue of association, be in favour of public religious expression. However, the exceedingly raucous minority of militant atheists (a minority even within self-proclaimed atheists) attempt to impose their beliefs on everyone else “from sea to shining sea”. In the Greece case, a town of around 100,000 people, the city council said that since almost everyone there was of some Christian denomination, they did not see why they ought to invite a Muslim imam to open council meetings if there were no mosque in the town just to satisfy those calling for all religions to the represented. The two atheist plaintiffs, obviously not the only atheists in the town, however, said that they felt so excluded by the opening prayers that no one else in the entire town ought to be able to open civic meetings with prayer either. Perhaps this is what the Founding Fathers might call “the tyranny of the minority”.
Indeed, I think the thing that irritated me most about this second point was that stifling and eradicating opposing opinions has become a favourite method amongst those on the left the past few years. It has worked remarkably well with regards to the same-sex marriage debate. Just last month the big story was Mozilla Firefox firing its CEO because he donated money to Prop 8 six years ago. Instead of convincing one’s adversary of the truth of one’s own position, the favourite tactic now is to eliminate the freedom to dissent; thus, it is inherently illiberal since liberalism, as far as I am aware, claims to support every person’s freedom of expression. It might be my Soviet studies coming forth but Marxist and communist doctrine require opposing viewpoints to be eliminated from public discussion if the government’s policies are to be implemented with the most efficiency possible.
My third and final point is simply that the arguments for eradicating religious expression from public and civic environments are a significant change from what the Founding Fathers initially intended the 1st Amendment to protect against. For those of us who haven’t memorised the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, I had to look up the exact wording of the section of the 1st Amendment in question:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
As a historian, I enjoy looking at the world through the eyes of others in different times and different places and seeing what it can teach me about my own life in my current situation. The Founding Fathers, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson included, ostensibly only restricted the federal government from establishing a national religion. Until 1833, Massachusetts had an established Congregationalist church and only voted to disestablish it in 1833 because of tax purposes, not some sort of court case overturning it. In fact, until the 14th Amendment after the Civil War, the national constitution did not apply to the states. As President, Thomas Jefferson, lovingly quoted by modern atheists for his 1802 “separation of church and state” quip, vetoed Congressional acts attempting to have him issue Proclamations of Thanksgiving stating that it violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution; however, as governor of Virginia, he saw no problem issuing them then since it was only the national government that was forbidden from establishing religious preferences.
Now, one can argue the merits about the initial position of the Founding Fathers towards religion and whether or not the modern interpretation is better or worse for our time. At the same time, however, whatever one’s opinion about the interpretation of the Establishment Clause, the second clause of the sentence is often ignored by militant atheists–that Congress shall not “[prohibit] the free exercise thereof”.
In many ways, yesterday’s Supreme Court case really comes down to the Free Exercise Clause. Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority stating that if the court ruled that prayers were not allowed in a civic environment, or if they had to be nondenominational, then the Free-Exercise Clause would become meaningless since the government would be restricting the rights of people to exercise their religion for no reason other than it made people who were not of the same religion uncomfortable. Yesterday’s decision was in one sense a victory for everyone. Everyone is allowed to express their beliefs or non-beliefs in a public and civic setting free from the threat of being sued. The plaintiffs themselves were the real enemies of freedom.