Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Because I'm religion's biggest fan.

For the past couple of months, the US Supreme Court (SC) has been embroiled in a host of cases that run the gamut, from illegal filesharing to New York Times journalists refusing to divulge their sources to the separation between church and state.

The last one is what I'm interested in writing about (not to say that the other two are appallingly boring, just that they're ancillary to the current topic), the divide between the church and the state.

From what I remember reading of US history, most of the early settlers came over to escape religious persecution in Europe. The middle colonies of British North America - New Jersey, New York, Delaware, and Pennsylvania - became a stage for the western world’s most complex experience with religious pluralism.
The mid-Atlantic region, unlike either New England or the South, drew many of its initial settlers from European states that had been deeply disrupted by the Protestant Reformation and the religious wars that followed in its wake. Small congregations of Dutch Mennonites, French Huguenots, German Baptists, and Portuguese Jews joined larger communions of Dutch Reformed, Lutherans, Quakers, and Anglicans to create a uniquely diverse religious society. African Americans and the indigenous Indians, with religious traditions of their own, added further variety to the Middle Colony mosaic. (make clicky with the link above; same article)
I may be mistaken in my reading, but I'm sure that the US constitution separated church and state so that other Americans could freely practice whatever religion they wanted. Say, if you have Baptists in government positions, they could be haranguing Catholics till kingdom come.

To be more specific, here are some actual laws that were passed in the years after the Revolutionary War:
  • Prohibited clergy from holding office
  • Required legislators to be Protestant Christians
  • Granted religious and other human rights only to Christians, or only to theists
  • Specified "The Protestant Religion" (whatever that meant) to be the established religion of the state (make clicky with the link)
Now, there have been two high-profile cases in Texas and Kentucky recently (plus the SC's decision on those) that are causing a lot of social backlash.

In a nutshell:

A six-foot granite monument of the Ten Commandments had been set up on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol. In Kentucky, framed copies of the Ten Commandments had been hanging in two courthouses. Last June 29, the SC's decision allowed Texas to keep their commandments but forbade Kentucky from hanging theirs. Scratch your head all you want, because it doesn't seem to make any sense.

In the first ruling, the court ruled that the Kentucky displays violated the Establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits government from endorsing or supporting one religion above others. The court allowed Texas to keep its display, because it could be arguably held through 'historical context', a 'legitimate tribute' to the country's history.

"Simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the Establishment clause," Justice William H. Rehnquist said in the Texas decision.

So what does this mean then? Displays on religion inside and on government property will be decided on a case to case basis.

The SC justices struggled with the decision as evidenced by the 5-4 vote. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and John Paul Stevens wondered where the religious line should be drawn (they both dissented). The court ruled in 1983 that legislative prayer is allowable, citing its historical significance, but in 1992 disallowed it in public schools, as students might be pressured to join in.

"The touchstone for our analysis is the principle that the 'First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion,'" Justice David H. Souter wrote in the majority opinion, citing previous court rulings.

And here comes the question of neutrality, as pointed out by Justice Antonin Scalia.

Listing the various ways in which higher beings are invoked in public life — from "so help me God" in inaugural oaths to the prayer that opens the Supreme Court's sessions — Scalia asked, "With all of this reality (and much more) staring it in the face, how can the court possibly assert that 'the First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality' [on religion]?"

The raging debate only continues on more heatedly with the SC decision. Is it duplicitous? It seems to be so. But it doesn't come down to simply being 'black and white'. As the justices have shown, there remains to be a difference of opinion even when legally backed by previous high court decisions. And that, in my opinion, is what makes discussions about the separation between church and state layered and nuanced.