How establishment corrupts religion: A case study

Jessica Ahlquist was right.

The sectarian banner that hung at Cranston West High School in Cranston, Rhode Island, should not have been there. Its presence there was both unjust and illegal. And, being unjust, it was also a sin.

The First Amendment is very clear. It defends the free exercise of religion and, therefore, also forbids the establishment of religion. To establish any particular sect — to privilege it with official state sanction — is unfair to everyone who is not a member of that particular sect. And, just as bad, such privileging is extremely corrosive to the privileged sect, pushing it toward either impotent irrelevance or toward inquisitorial coercion. When any sect is privileged with establishment, the free exercise of religion is constrained for everyone outside and inside of that sect.

Cranston’s “school prayer” banner was an obvious establishment of religion and is therefore wrong — not just illegal, but unjust and thus ethically, morally and spiritually wrong. In the big picture, this may not seem like an important matter. It’s just a little evil thing, to borrow a phrase, but this sectarian banner still should not have been there. Its presence was unfair to everyone — students, teachers, staff — who did not subscribe to its particular sectarian version of Christian-ish civil religion. And its presence was a dangerous, subtly corrupting influence for everyone — students, teachers, staff — who was any sort of Christian.

School officials had no business allowing that sectarian banner to remain. Christians ought to have demanded its removal. (And, given that this was in Rhode Island, every history teacher who walked by that banner without tearing it down in the name of Roger Williams ought to be fired for incompetence.)

That it took a teenager to point all of this out should be deeply embarrassing to all the adults and officials who ought to have known better.

You may be thinking that some of the language above is a bit disproportionate. All that talk of justice and injustice and that business about any establishment of religion being “corrosive” and “dangerous” for the established sect.

But consider what happened after U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux handed down the obvious ruling earlier this year, saying that the school prayer banner had to come down. Ahlquist, the 16-year-old plaintiff in a case that ought to have been decided decades before she was born, became the focus of a nasty backlash from civil religion devotees in Cranston.

Student Faces Town’s Wrath in Protest Against a Prayer,” the New York Times reported:

A federal judge ruled this month that the prayer’s presence at Cranston High School West was unconstitutional, concluding that it violated the principle of government neutrality in religion. In the weeks since, residents have crowded school board meetings to demand an appeal, Jessica [Ahlquist] has received online threats and the police have escorted her at school, and Cranston, a dense city of 80,000 just south of Providence, has throbbed with raw emotion.

State Representative Peter G. Palumbo, a Democrat from Cranston, called Jessica “an evil little thing” on a popular talk radio show. Three separate florists refused to deliver her roses sent from a national atheist group.

That’s a tribal response. It shows that, for these angry Cranston residents, this “school prayer” was no longer a prayer at all, but a tribal symbol, a tribal battle flag.

A prayer that included an appeal for divine help “to be kind” ceased to have anything to do with either kindness or prayer once it became an established, state-sanctioned symbol of privilege for a particular sect. Whatever that sect may have been about originally, its establishment as the official, privileged sect of Cranston turned it into something else — into the same thing that every privileged sect becomes.

This is what happens when religion is established and made official. This is what always happens when religion is established and made official. The privileges that arise from being the official, established sect become the entire substance of that sect. The defense of that privilege replaces every other purpose, meaning or reason for existence until it is all that is left.

Jessica Ahlquist was right. So was Roger Williams.

  • Anonymous

     

    Is there a difference between an Atheist saying nobody can use the word
    “God” in a public place, and a Bishop saying nobody can use
    contraception if a Catholic is involved?

    Well, there’s the fact that only one of these things is actually happening.  That seems like a significant difference.

    Is there anything objectionable about telling kids to be good sports and helpful to classmates?

    The banner doesn’t tell kids anything; it’s addressed to God.  It begins with “Our heavenly father,” it ends with “Amen,” and every sentence in between is a petition to Somebody with power over us mortals.

    If the school had wanted to tell kids to be good sports and helpful to classmates, they could have simply reworded the banner to “May we desire to do our best, to grow morally and physically, etc.” and nobody would have a problem with it.  The ACLU said that was an option before the lawsuit even began, as you know if you’ve read the other comments.  The school board didn’t take that option, because they were more interested in endorsing a sectarian religious viewpoint than in giving good advice to the kids while upholding the Constitution.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    @LouisDoench: Here’s the link…
    http://www.evillittleshirts.com/

    Ordered! Black with white writing, handwriting font. Can’t wait to wear it to roller derby. It would be perfect even without the $10 going to Jessica’s college fund — but that was the detail that got me to buy it now and not, say, weeks later when I finally remembered and then failed to talk myself out of it.

  • http://mpzrd.blogspot.com/ Marshall

    The banner was a speech act by some school spirit group in 1963. You just said, if the banner didn’t invoke God, it would be fine. QED that part, both of those things happened. 
    Jessica is quoted in the (laudatory!) NYT editorial, about the root of her action,

    “It seemed like it was saying, every time I saw it, ‘You don’t belong here.’ ”

    Prior to the legal nitpicking, Jessica is asserting a right not to be excluded (in High School!!), and that the banner offended that right. The Roman Catholic Conference of Bishops assert the right to new restrictions on health care coverage on the grounds that contraception is offensive to them. Recalling that in both cases the only harm to the plaintiff is in the offense taken, I would like to see an ethical (analytic) justification of treating the two cases oppositely. Any takers? (I say both are wrong, obviously.)

    As to defending the Constitution, the First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” No restriction of free exercise or non-exercise was alleged (eg if the Muslim Student Association (or the Student Atheist Society) had been prohibited from hanging some suitably banal blessing). If you can think a 45-year-old embroidered blanket gathering dust in the rafters establishes a religion (not to pick nits that no act of Congress was involved) … I guess if you sharpen your razor you can make the case, but as Great Civil Rights victories go…. I think that petty BS that adds to the climate of “every man against every man” (and to the degeneration of local community) is a much bigger civil rights problem than stuff like this.

    Dave: Provenance is important to sometimes: the people who hung that particular blanket are old folks now. OTOH I agree, it’s a thoroughly childish thing to get in a fight over. 

    But never mind.

  • Anonymous

     Prior to the legal nitpicking, Jessica is asserting a right not to be
    excluded (in High School!!), and that the banner offended that right.
    The Roman Catholic Conference of Bishops assert the right to new
    restrictions on health care coverage on the grounds that contraception
    is offensive to them. Recalling that in both cases the only harm to the
    plaintiff is in the offense taken, I would like to see an ethical
    (analytic) justification of treating the two cases oppositely. Any
    takers? (I say both are wrong, obviously.)

    The RCC is asserting that the state is obligated to exclude on a religious basis. Ahlquist is asserting that the state is obligated not to exclude on a religious basis. Strangely enough, I think the RCC is wrong and Ahlquist is right.

  • Anonymous

    Marshall,

    The banner was a speech act by some school spirit group in 1963.

    Let’s be precise here.  Funding the banner and presenting it to the school were speech acts by the Class of 1963, and they had every right to do that.  Accepting, installing and maintaining the banner was a speech act by the school administration, which is an arm of the government, and that was the unconstitutional part.

    By the way, the school prayer predates the banner, and was recited in class every day until Engel v. Vitale nixed prayer in schools.  And it was originally adopted as a replacement for the Lord’s Prayer, which was regularly recited before that.  This isn’t an inspirational message which just happens to be phrased as a prayer.  Its primary purpose was religious from day one.

    The Roman Catholic Conference of Bishops assert the right to new restrictions on health care coverage on the grounds that contraception is offensive to them.  Recalling that in both cases the only harm to the plaintiff is in the offense taken, I would like to see an ethical (analytic) justification of treating the two cases oppositely. Any takers?

    Sure.  Two things:

    First, the harm to the plaintiff doesn’t determine whether the government has violated the Constitution.  The harm to the plaintiff is what gives them standing to sue over the claimed violation.  An offended Catholic employer would almost certainly have standing to sue, just like the Ahlquists did.  But that wouldn’t make his case a good one, because the government’s actions are completely different in the two cases.

    Second, not just anyone who’s offended by a law can sue; they have to have a direct personal stake in the outcome and their injury must be redressable by the court.  That’s why it had to be Jessica, a student currently enrolled at the school.  Even a former student probably wouldn’t be eligible.  Similarly, while a Catholic employer would have standing to sue over employee healthcare, a group of bishops would not; the law doesn’t impact them directly.

    If you can think a 45-year-old embroidered blanket gathering dust in the rafters establishes a religion

    The Establishment Clause doesn’t just mean that the government can’t establish a religion, it means that the government can’t establish a preference for one religion over another.  The Ahlquists argued that when the government endorses Christian prayers in its schools, it’s expressing a preference for Christianity.  “Tell me something I don’t know,” said the judge.  This was not a difficult case to decide.

    (not to pick nits that no act of Congress was involved)

    Fourteenth Amendment, Incorporation Doctrine, etc.

    I think that petty BS that adds to the climate of “every man against every man” (and to the degeneration of local community) is a much bigger civil rights problem than stuff like this.

    Uh-huh.  Then maybe notice that only one side in this dispute was calling its opponents evil and hellbound and threatening them with death, and turning school board meetings into sectarian cheerleading sessions.  As the judge observed, preventing this sort of “civic divisiveness” is precisely why we need an Establishment Clause.  When the government endorses religion, it always turns into a shitstorm as soon as anyone dares to object.

    Dave: Provenance is important to sometimes: the people who hung that particular blanket are old folks now.

    Quote from the court decision:  “No amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction.”


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