Michael Egnor: Champion of Those Who Don't Read The Whole Constitution

The contents of this post represent the opinions of JT Eberhard, not the Secular Student Alliance.

It’s amazing how often, in rebutting a creationist’s arguments, I have to beg them to read the intro chapters of whatever it is they’re talking about.  In this case, I must implore Mike Egnor to read the Constitution, since it appears he hasn’t.

Let’s start with the first two pieces of the “challenge” that dad didn’t get to.

What part of the First Amendment did the prayer mural violate? Be specific.

Is the prayer mural a “law” made by Congress (“Congress shall make no law…”)?

Let’s lump in all the similar questions in the challenge.

Where in the text does the Constitution forbid the display of a religious statement that citizens are free to ignore?

Can the mere display of a prayer, without compulsion of any sort, constitute an Establishment of religion– an institutional federal church?

 

This is an extension of the whole “Separation isn’t ever in the Constitution!” line.

Follow me to another section of the Constitution: Article 3, Section 1 which says:

“The judicial Power of the United States, shall be vested in one supreme Court, and in such inferior Courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish.

The judicial Power shall extend to all Cases, in Law and Equity, arising under this Constitution, the Laws of the United States, and Treaties made, or which shall be made, under their Authority….”

This specifically gives the Supreme Court the authority to interpret the Constitution under their judicial power over the law. If you take the baby step to admit the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, you are forced to accept that the Supreme Court has the right to rule on its interpretation. The interpretation of the court has been consistently that the establishment clause means there is separation of church and state.

There is realistically no denying that the Supreme Court has the authority to make that call, so that’s the way it is. Of course the theocrats will say the SCOTUS made the wrong call, but no reasonable person is really going to accept the judgment of “truck stop lawyers” over decades of decisions by people whose lives are spent marinating in and studying constitutional law and whose decisions are based on decades of established precedents. If the Separation clause is illegal, the federal judiciary must have been mistaken all these years, and still is.

They are the referees who have the authority to make the call, and they have clearly made the call for separation. Entertaining as the theocrat’s arguments against the Separation clause may be, they are scarcely new. By now they’ve failed to convince generation after generation of American judges.

Constitutional literalism, which is exactly what Egnor is attempting here, is the last gasp rationalization for those who reach for it merely as an excuse to have their antiquated and unconstitutional religious and moral nonsense forced into public institutions and the culture at large. It has virtually no relevance to actual jurisprudence, and even the tiniest amount of thought towards how a society would actually function by interpreting the constitution literally reveals it to be not just staggeringly impractical for any complex society with complex differences of opinion, but just transparently silly.

The jurisprudence and precedent on the establishment clause in relation to school prayers is fairly clear, despite relentless pressure from the religious right to change it. Literalism is a concept of intellectual interest only and has virtually no practical relevance to the actual law or meaning of the constitution.

As far as the phrase in the 1st amendment goes (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”) the SCOTUS (the ones with the authority to make the call) realize the only way to achieve both of these is to keep the government neutral through separation of church and state.

Thus, it is entirely appropriate to speak of the “constitutional principle of church-state separation” since that phrase summarizes what the First Amendment’s religion clauses do-they separate church and state.

“When the government puts its imprimatur on a particular religion it conveys a message of exclusion to all those who do not adhere to the favored beliefs. A government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some.” ~ Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun in the Lee v. Weisman ruling, 1992

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Zinc Avenger

    You have failed to sufficiently answer the central point of those who think the mural should stay up: “Shut up meanie! My god is bigger than your dad!”

  • slc1

    I always get a laugh out of clowns like Egnor who argue that the phrase separation of church and state is nowhere explicitly in the Constitution. Neither is there authorization to set up a separate air force. In fact, the Constitution explicitly says that armies and navies may be established but nowhere says that a separate air force can be established. Therefore, under the strict interpretation proposed by Egnor, the US Air Force is unconstitutional.

  • Randomfactor

    Just stating that one god should be written with a capital “G” and exists to have preferences, is stepping over the line. IANASCJ.

  • Randomfactor

    The lack of “separation of church and state” in the Constitution shouldn’t trouble Egnor half so much as the lack of “god,” “Jesus,” or “Christian.”

    Apparently none of those things are real in this country, either.

    • John Eberhard

      Are you the Randomfactor who has done so much brilliant commentary in the Providence Journal, helping Legal_eagle and others to expose themselves as drooling knuckle-dragging Neanderthals? (No offense intended to the Neanderthals). Did some commenting over there myself, and if you are the same Randomfactor I enjoyed your commentary very much and “liked” oh, about 50 or 60 of your posts there. Legal_eagle likes me better than you…….he said so…..makes me feel like a second-rater. :o)

  • DaveL

    even the tiniest amount of thought towards how a society would actually function by interpreting the constitution literally reveals it to be not just staggeringly impractical for any complex society with complex differences of opinion, but just transparently silly.

    Ask him if the 2nd amendment guarantees the people’s right to own ammunition.

    • Zinc Avenger

      Copied to the quote file.

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

    Is the prayer mural a “law” made by Congress (“Congress shall make no law…”)?

    This comment by Egnor reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ line that people who try to make themselves stupider than they are very often succeed.

    No, the prayer mural in a Cranston, Rhode Island high school obviously wasn’t put there by a direct act of Congress. But just as obviously, Congress can’t pass a law establishing a government agency and then directing that agency to do something that Congress itself couldn’t legally do. Because of the Fourteenth Amendment’s incorporation of the Bill of Rights, the same is true of state legislatures. The administrators of a public high school get their authority from acts of the federal and state government, and are constitutionally bound to respect the same rights as any other agent of the government. If it weren’t so, school administrators could do whatever they wanted witth regard to religion – for example, banning all prayer in public schools. Is that a position that Egnor wants to defend?

  • SteveC

    What part of the First Amendment did the prayer mural violate? Be specific.
    Is the prayer mural a “law” made by Congress (“Congress shall make no law…”)?

    Congress did make a law that requires kids in a certain age range to attend school. It is also recognized that not everyone can afford to go to private school, so the government provides public school. So in effect there is a set of people who Congress is compelling by force of law to attend public schools. Since they are forcing people to attend public schools, they cannot also endorse a particular religion or no religion at public schools without violating the first amendment.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/crommunist Crommunist

    no reasonable person is really going to accept the judgment of “truck stop lawyers” over decades of decisions by people whose lives are spent marinating in and studying constitutional law and whose decisions are based on decades of established precedents.

    Problematic argument. “Citizens United” was created under the same circumstances, and no reasonable person thinks that corporations are people. It borders on an appeal to authority, although insofar as the supreme court is the final arbiter of the meaning of the Constitution, their authority is final by definition.

    The point that I think you are making, or at least the one that I would agree with, is that trying to make a legal/Constitutional argument that says there is no separation is nonsense. Disagreeing with the court’s decision does not invalidate whether it is a legal fact. Same with “Citizens United” – just because I think it’s a dog’s breakfast of a decision does not rob it of the force of law.

    • jonathan

      Nice


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