When it Comes to Minor Church/State Separation Violations, This is Why We Fight

Lately, we’ve seen a handful of complaints/lawsuits over Christian symbols appearing in city seals. Richard Wade commented on this earlier today.

Here’s how it goes down: An atheist individual or group complains about it because it’s a violation of church/state separation. People get up in arms because “How dare you go after something so insignificant?” Even atheists. They want to know why we don’t choose our battles a little more wisely. They want us to stop embarrassing other atheists.

I’ll grant that these issues aren’t as big of a deal as, say, administration-sponsored prayer in public schools. But here’s why it’s still important to go after them.

If we don’t, then two things will happen:

1) Years down the road, when another, more egregious violation pops up in another city, the officials’ response will be, “Well, you didn’t bother that other city when they did it, so why are you going after us?” Perhaps the same city will try to include a Christian symbol in other promotional materials and they’ll say the same thing “Well, you didn’t care then! So why now?”

2) If no one complains, it won’t be long before this city gets to use the age-old excuse of “It’s just tradition.” That’s the excuse Cranston High School West used when they wanted to keep up their religious prayer banner. It’s the excuse many high schools have used to keep prayers in graduation ceremonies or say them over the loudspeakers before football games.

So we must keep fighting.

As one commenter phrased it recently, this is like an atheist version of the “broken windows theory.” That theory roughly says that if you clean up minor instances of graffiti or broken windows, it sends a signal to vandals that you won’t stand for the destruction. They’re less likely to leave their marks if people are going to just clean it up immediately. But if you don’t take care of the problem, the vandals know you don’t care and they’ll just go on doing it — maybe even moreso than before.

Similarly, by going after these “minor instances” of church/state violations — prayers at city council meetings, the word “God” popping up in places it has no business being — we’re sending a message to other cities and Christian officials that we’re not going to let them shove their faith into government. We’ll go after any instance of it, even if it seems petty to you.

That’s why I support the people who are fighting back. I may take issue with some of their methods, but I agree with them on principle. I wish more people had their backs.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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