Tis the Season for Church-State Lawsuits!

I think Mark Shea meant to give me a compliment, but if you read his post today, I sound like the atheist equivalent of a Fox News!democrat — the kind of Judas you can point to and say “even atheists think X has gone too far.”  So let me take a moment to talk about some of the church-state lawsuits that are a traditional part of the holiday season.

The discussion was sparked by an Arizona lawsuit in which the Freedom from Religion Foundation sued after Gov. Jan Brewer declared a statewide Day of Prayer.  Mark Shea wrote in reply:

If you are going to proclaim yourself the hardened, tough adults who stand for Humanity Come of Age as you glory over theists, the weaklings on crutches whose beliefs originate in the “bawling and fearful infancy of our species”, then for heaven’s sake (get it?) man up and stop sniveling, you wusses!

…Dearest atheists, consider taking some free advice from somebody who bats for the opposite team. You know who you guys could take a cue from? Christian martyrs. Roast ‘em, mash ‘em, stick ‘em in a stew, they take a licking and keep on ticking. Gouge out their eyes and they laugh and turn it into a fun feast day… Those were men and women who could take it. Atheists who screech like little girls at the sight of a world not to their liking are not going to be very effective Vanguards for the Revolution because, you know, sheesh! What a bunch of sorry pantywaists!

First of all, there are atheists in this fight who have it a lot harder than me.  Teenaged Damon Fowler got death threats from strangers when he objected to prayer at his public school graduation.  And I can’t even say that’s the worst of it, since he also got kicked out of his home and disinherited by his parents.  Another teenager, Jessica Ahlquist, also received threats and harassment when she objected to her school’s public promotion of prayer.  Small wonder some high school-age plaintiffs try to stay anonymous when filing suit.

We go to courtrooms in order to avoid the more cinematic martyrdoms of the past, but it would be wrong to think these plaintiffs aren’t providing a witness to constitutional rights at some risk to themselves.  It’s an even bigger mistake for outside observers to appoint themselves arbiter of how much you have to endanger yourself to be taken seriously.

Let me offer a parallel example.  I’ve had a persistent problem with sexual harassment from cab drivers here in Washington DC (to the point where I’d rather take my chances walking in the dark than get into a late night cab).  You could certainly make a case that, every time a cab driver pressures me, I’m being a handed a powerful opportunity for a ‘teachable moment.’  A real feminist would speak up and explain to the driver why she found his behavior intolerable.  At the very least, an empowered woman shouldn’t be so upset when the driver only made her uncomfortable and didn’t make a physical threat.

Believe me, I know the arguments, since I made them to myself while scrunched up in the backseat of cabs.  I’m sure some people could have produced some good if they’d found themselves in my predicament, but, as ornery and argumentative as I am, I just couldn’t.  It’s not a question of shying away from a fight; the cabdriver was the one who started a confrontation when he began pressuring me to give him my number and see him later.  I just made the choice not to escalate.

When someone else starts a fight with you unprovoked, it reeks of blaming the victim to say you didn’t defend yourself right or fiercely enough.  Believe me I love stoicism more than I probably should, but even I know that feeling upset when you’re treated badly doesn’t mean you’re too weak to deserve to be treated well.

If you want to fight about whether government-sponsored prayer counts as starting a fight, wait for a follow-up post, since I’m on my way out the door to the DC Science Cafe.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Patrick

    Heh. Shea doesn’t realize that he’s the butt of his own joke.

    The way effective atheist protests typically work is this:

    1. Atheist says something fairly benign, or obviously legally correct.
    2. Theists go crazy in a vastly disproportionate manner.
    3. We publicly note the fact.
    4. Third parties see this, and make a mental note of the discrepancy in behavior.

    Shea’s post is step 2, and he doesn’t realize it. Its essentially the same thing as the martyr stuff he’s discussing, with him in the role of the Romans. Except in modern times no one gets fed to lions, they get snarked at by the oblivious. Lower stakes, thank goodness, but I’m not going to feel like I’m not hardcore enough for Mr. Shea just because I survive the process.

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    I kind of get the impression that Mark Shea is pining for the days when religious disputes were settled through bloodshed and torture. Someone should politely inform him that we live in America in the 21st century, which is a country that has this thing called “the rule of law”, meaning that nowadays we settle our disagreements through democratic and constitutional means rather than butchery in the streets.

    • Gilbert

      Mark Shea is admittedly in the wrong here, but still your impression is clearly incorrect.

      If you read his blog regularly you know he has a bit of a temper. Occasionally he writes a rant like this one, which b.t.w. is still a lot more tame than lots of stuff I have read at comparable atheist blogs. More likely then not by this time next weak he will have repented.

      But he never advocates for violence and torture and in fact has made himself rather unpopular with movement conservatives for loudly disapproving of torture and of politicians who advocate for it.

      Plus he knows (and even acknowledged in that very piece) that as a faithful Catholic actually believing the less popular bits he isn’t much less of an outsider than atheists are. Settling religious conflicts through bloodshed and torture doesn’t necessarily end up to our advantage and he knows that.

      So yes, he is wrong, but nowhere near that wrong.

      • http://www.allourlives.org TooManyJens

        If you read his blog regularly you know he has a bit of a temper.

        That’s an understatement. Every post I’ve read by him has been simply nasty to anyone who disagrees.

  • http://twitter.com/blamer @blamer

    Loud-mouths will continue with their compelling rhetoric of the “battle of religious ideas” being a holy war against their religion, until our theist leaders defend cultural minorities and secularism as passionately as non-Christians do.

  • Jonas

    I don’t think people who get up in arms about the saying “Happy Holidays” can really accuse other people of being thin skinned. Persecution complex much?

  • http://www.allourlives.org TooManyJens

    “Who cares if we’re breaking the law? At least we’re not gouging your eyes out!” does not strike me as setting a high bar for one’s own (or one’s group’s) behavior.

    • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

      That made me laugh. :)

      Now that I think about it, Shea’s statement is revealing in a different way: In a courthouse, you have to argue based on evidence and logic, and your case is decided by the judgment of a neutral third party. The alternative he seems to be advocating is one where the victory goes to whoever can endure the most suffering. Clearly, he prefers this method of persuasion to the one based on rational argument. I wonder why?

  • deiseach

    Speaking from a purely Irish viewpoint, sometimes you Americans look crazy.

    Personally, I’d love if someone could or would bring a lawsuit to keep politicians of every stripe from using religion as a vote-grabbing exercise. Over here, it’s traditionally been electioneering outside the church door after Mass to remind everyone to give Candidate X your number one in the upcoming election. We haven’t, thanks be to God and His blessed Mother, had the pleasure of a politician actually getting up in the pulpit to stump for votes under the guise of giving a sermon or his/her testimony (unlike what I see in coverage of American elections, where it seems to be the first thing a potential Presidential candidate does is find a black congregation to permit him to do such.

    I don’t see the Governor of Arizona’s proclamation of a statewide Day of Prayer as being a blitzkrieg to enforce Christianity, I see it as a calculated attempt to appeal to a constituency. I’m perfectly sure she(?) would be equally happy to announce a statewide Day of Pancakes, Day of Dying Your Hair Purple or Day of Celebrate Your Labradoodle if there were votes in it. I am trying very hard to sympathise with (that is, to see from their point of view) the people who brought the case when they say they feel injured and excluded, but to me, it sounds as counterproductive as gay rights activists petitioning that tv shows should no longer include heterosexual married couples since this is an attempt to impose heteronormativity and makes non-heterosexual couples feel excluded and outsiders. I’d suggest a better idea might be to petition the Governor to declare a statewide Day of Science Education or the likes.

    Secondly, why do a lot of these cases that I read about on blogs seem to revolve around high-school graduations? Particularly “Johnny or Mary Smalltown wanted to thank God in his/her graduation speech but the mean secularists stopped him/her – this is an infringement of his/her constitutional right to free speech!”

    American 18 year olds must be a very different breed. Over here, we don’t have valedictorians and gowns and big ceremonies; you do your Leaving Certificate in June, you get called in to the school to collect your results in August, you go on the lashwith your mates and get blind drunk in celebration. You do not wear college gowns (or a knock-off thereof) and make earnest speeches about God in front of your classmates.

    I agree that, given the separation of church and state, schools probably shouldn’t have an official prayer ceremony (over here, we might have a class Mass before the end of the year, but that’s a different kettle of fish). However, I think bringing court cases to gag some kid who wants to say the name of Jesus is counterproductive since it does make the complainer sound whiny. I would suggest, again, let whoever is making the speech say whatever they want (short of something along the lines of “Burn the witches!!!”).

    If that means an earnest 18 year old making a minor spectacle of him or herself in front of their classmates and their families by blathering on for five minutes that “Jesus is my boyfriend” in the manner of an embarassing Oscar acceptance speech, so be it. Equally, if an atheist student wants to rant that “There is no god but Darwin and Dawkins is his prophet”, so be it and let the shocked and appalled believers get over themselves. Going to court to force the school to gag/permit any mention of deity or deities just sounds like taking it all too seriously.

    And if there are idiots making death threats, the cops should throw their dumb asses in jail.

    Also,

    • http://www.allourlives.org TooManyJens

      I am trying very hard to sympathise with (that is, to see from their point of view) the people who brought the case when they say they feel injured and excluded, but to me, it sounds as counterproductive as gay rights activists petitioning that tv shows should no longer include heterosexual married couples since this is an attempt to impose heteronormativity and makes non-heterosexual couples feel excluded and outsiders.

      The problem is that even though a government official declaring a State Day of Prayer is … constitutionally problematic, it’s not enough to just go to court and say, “we think this is breaking the law.” You have to have standing to bring the suit, which means that you have to show that you personally have been harmed in some way. That’s why the plaintiffs in this case claimed that they were excluded and made to feel like outsiders. I’m not saying that isn’t true, but I suspect that’s not the reason they brought the suit. It’s just the only way they can get the suit heard.

      • deiseach

        I understand what you’re saying, TooManyJens, that the grounds for taking such a case may be limited and that they have to go with what they think is the strongest one.

        However, this gets us butting our heads right up against the problem that where do the rights of the majority as a majority and the rights of a minority overlap or end?

        To be blunt, being an atheist/agnostic is going to be a minority grouping for the time being in the United States. The majority have some form of religious belief, and the majority expression of that is Christian. I do see the point about not making the state apparatus an arm of the church (or vice versa, which is even worse) but then again, is every expression of a shared majority view to be vulnerable to such cases being brought?

        In this instance, I am in broad agreement with the plaintiffs that the governor shouldn’t be using her position as a platform to push a particular group’s agenda. Then again, I do think that the delivery of such a message also has a lot to do with how it’s perceived; if it is legal and constitutional for any group to host a state and/or national day of whatever, and they ask the governor or local government to make the announcement that “February 29th will be State Daisy-Chain Making Day”, then I don’t see the objection.

        It’s different if the governor does it in a nod-and-wink style: “My fellow believers, rejoice with me as we triumph over the forces of unbelief and rampaging secularism as we all engage in fervent invocation of deity!” That’s unacceptable.

        Then again, Americans do seem to take religion more seriously – either pro or con – than we effete decadent Europeans do (I am sick to the back teeth of reading hysterical North American prophets of doom about the imminent Islamisation of Europe – yes, Mark Steyn, I mean you. My immediate response to that is “Oh, like the Muslim doctor who saw me in the Emergency Room at 3 a.m. on Good Friday morning and sorted me out where two non-Muslim doctors I’d seen at home couldn’t? If that’s the Muslim hordes sweeping over Europe, let’s have some more!”) .

        At this very moment, in Holy Catholic Ireland, we have two (2) atheists in our government: the Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) and the Minister for Education, plus a brand spanking newly-elected President who may be an agnostic (he described himself as ‘spiritual not religious’ and the multi-faith service at his inauguration included a Humanist giving a reflection).

        • http://www.allourlives.org TooManyJens

          “if it is legal and constitutional for any group to host a state and/or national day of whatever”

          Well, that’s really the key question here. Our Supreme Court has struck down government-sponsored endorsements of religion before, and the government officially encouraging people to pray violates the Lemon test. But government entities still often try to sneak in official endorsement of religion.

        • http://www.allourlives.org TooManyJens

          I would add that if you give the church-state mixers in the U.S. an inch, they absolutely will take a mile, which is one reason separationists go after seemingly minor issues like a State Day of Prayer so hard.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    Hi. I got here via a recent post at Daylight Atheism (‘Tis the Season for Holy War Nostalgia).

    When someone else starts a fight with you unprovoked, it reeks of blaming the victim to say you didn’t defend yourself right or fiercely enough. Believe me I love stoicism more than I probably should, but even I know that feeling upset when you’re treated badly doesn’t mean you’re too weak to deserve to be treated well.

    This is an excellent point.

    I can’t help thinking that, if Mark Shea was part of a minority religion (rather than the largest religion on the planet and in the country) then he might see the problem with, say, having a day of prayer in a country where most of the politicians are a different religion, a day of prayer in which it’s extremely likely that the other religion will definitely be getting special treatment.

  • Pingback: Church and State: Two Disputedly-Valued Things that Go Terribly Together


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