On Secular Uses Of Hallowing Halls

On Secular Uses Of Hallowing Halls June 1, 2010


A federal judge has ruled that a public school cannot hold its ceremony in a church building:

[Bridgeport-based federal judge Janet] Hall ruled that use of the church for graduation violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, even though some of the symbols were to be covered.

Earlier this year, members of the Enfield Board of Education had agreed not to use the church. But lobbying from a religious organization, the Family Institute of Connecticut, persuaded them to change their minds.

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Connecticut and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a suit on behalf of two Enfield High seniors and three of their parents, arguing that the graduation plan violated the First Amendment.

In her ruling, Judge Hall wrote:

Based upon its findings, the court concludes, on the record before it, that the [defendants] have clearly demonstrated a likelihood of irreparable harm in the absence of the injunction and a substantial likelihood of success on the merits that holding the graduation ceremonies at First Cathedral violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

As expected, the ruling will be challenged by Christian lawyers.

When I received my doctorate a couple Saturdays ago, the graduate school’s ceremonies were held in the campus church.  Since I attended a Jesuit school this was, of course, entirely unobjectionable legally and personally a matter of indifference.  But, I must say, it felt quite good to graduate there.  Whereas newer Evangelical, low-church and megachurch style architecture is repulsively bland, manipulative, and corporate feeling, old school-church architecture is truly beautiful and brilliantly conveys a spirit of solemnity.  The acoustics were terrific, the stone floors and high wooden arches make for an inimitable atmosphere of reverence, aspiration, and historical tradition.  Nothing is more seductive about Roman Catholicism than its mastery of the immersive sensual appeal.

And while I feel like all of that structure is typically put to the use of promoting falsehoods that are rationally insupportable and dependent upon such atmospheric manipulations (among many other sorts of non-rational and irrational forms of persuasion), when I saw the wedding of the architecture which communicates solemnity to a ceremony that actually deserves it, the effect struck me as rather powerful and I felt really grateful to be receiving the doctorate in precisely that serious and honoring setting.  And it felt most appropriate for a University to see its conferral of its highest degrees to not be beneath the use of what it considered to be its sacred grounds.  For it is, wholly unambiguously, first and foremost a university and only secondarily a religious institution.  Its contributions of scholars, of scholarship, and of education are its reason to be and they deserved to be celebrated in what it took to be its holiest location.

In a perfect world, graduation ceremonies and other academic awards, peace prizes, recognitions of admirable people who express or contribute to human flourishing in any variety of ways would be honored in such a magnificent environment.  That’s what churches would be for, for honoring the best among s for their best contributions to humanity, rather than belittling all of us by communicating to us that we are inferior to an inhuman God who judges us all as worthless sinners for expressing the very natures he allegedly gave us and who demands groveling, self-deprecation, and the endless worship of himself.

And while we are celebrating people’s admirable achievements, why don’t we also mark the stages of life there as a way of stressing their great importance to us—birth, the beginning of formal schooling, the onset of puberty,  marriage, and death.  In other words, why not continue to honor and express to ourselves the great significance of these turning points in our lives in a building that communicates their seriousness, but at the same time stop deferring our attention from the actual source of value we are really there to honor to a fictitious extraneous value conferrer?

Why don’t we use them for concerts, for showcasing the visual arts, for awarding athletic medals, for honoring our doctors, our police officers, our firefighters, our military service people, and our humanitarians—all for themselves and the intrinsic value of their contributions, and not as consecrated to any irrational source of authority?

For as long as these buildings hold the connotations of superstition and associatively propagandize on its behalf without any words being necessary, this is all, unfortunately, mostly impossible to achieve.  For that reason, it is probably wise that without there first being a sweeping cultural transformation and secularization of the meaning of church buildings, that churches be barred from hosting the graduation ceremonies of public institutions, as a matter of erring on the side of caution in interpreting the separation of church and state as sacredly as possible.  But nonetheless secularists need hallowed halls in which we too can better mark the momentous with sobriety and celebration, meditate upon the conditions of our thriving with gratitude, concentrate on our moral tasks with renewed determination, revere our benefactors and our loved ones with magnificent gravity, and convey to ourselves and to others the sacredness of those discretely discernible features of our lives upon which our well-being, thriving, and happiness can rationally be seen to ultimately depend.

I would hope all this can be achieved without the concomitant traditional religious drawbacks of authoritarian belief structures (and contents), inflexibility of ritual, dogmatism about disputable moral and intellectual matters, superstition, compulsion, and ethnic and dogmatic divisions and exclusions. And I imagine, in some places, it fortunately already has.

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