Christian (and Other Theistic) Rights and Privileges—2016 Edition
By Ed Buckner
After a few postings back and forth on another site—Yabberz—one of my interlocutors (who goes by the name Rache511) posted the following questions/comments to me. She was far more courteous than some who argue with me and she graciously consented to my using her post here. I recommend Yabberz and that you read posts by Rache511 if you visit. I’ll send a link to this to her and other Yabberz folks, who may want to chime in here or on Yabberz.
First, from Rache511—
What special rights are those, Ed? Christians are not in any special, protected category, although every other religion, and its practitioners, is. Christians are barred from engaging in any type of voluntary prayer meetings in the public schools, yet in many schools, efforts have been made to accommodate Muslim students and their prayer needs.
Christian religious displays are banned from our public buildings –yet a court I often go to in my role as a lawyer is located in a heavily Jewish suburb, and every year, that courthouse has a Menorah in the front window.
I saw a video recently that showed a voluntary meeting of high school students on their lunch hour in a public park. Several women from the community served free home cooked food several days per week, and offered Christian teaching and prayer with those interested in participating. All the proper permits, licenses and non-exclusive rental agreement for the use of the park were in order.
Nevertheless, the high school principal and the district superintendent were there one day, their sole purpose being to shut down these lunch-time meetings. It seems the group had become so popular that several hundred students regularly had lunch and scripture there, and the school authorities were “concerned” that these meetings constituted an unhealthy environment for the students!
So, Ed, you’ll have to explain what special privileges you believe Christians have in our contemporary American society –I really don’t see it.
First, let me start with a thought experiment that I’d like Rache511 or any other Christian reading this to do; then I’ll comment specifically on her stuff.
But even before I do that, a few caveats: I’m not writing here on behalf of other atheists or American Atheists; I have reason to think that many of my fellow atheists agree with me, but I certainly know that not all of them do, on these matters or on much else. And I need to emphasize that I am not an attorney and that I have not been involved in developing any lawsuits involving American Atheists.
My proposed thought experiment: imagine that you are suddenly “transported” to live in the United States in the distant future, say in 2121, and you learn that by that time:
- All US currency and coins have engraved or printed on them, conspicuously, the national motto adopted by the US Congress in 2118: “There Is No God, But We Have Each Other.” That motto or a version of it appears on many state car license plates, in courtrooms, and on legislative walls all around the nation.
- In the visitors room at state prisons, at least in some states, signs read things like: “Get Fired Up! For Atheism!”—using taxpayer dollars to encourage both inmates and visitors to become atheists.
- All nonprofit organizations that clearly promote atheism or a lack of religiosity are granted an automatic exemption from income tax on donations made to them.
- All nonprofit organizations that clearly promote atheism or a lack of religiosity are granted an automatic exemption from having to provide any accounting for the tax-deductible donations they receive.
- All nonprofit organizations that clearly promote atheism or a lack of religiosity are granted, in most jurisdictions, an exemption or at least favorable tax treatment from local real estate taxes (“property taxes”).
- Any leader of an organization that clearly promotes atheism or a lack of religiosity is automatically granted special exemptions and treatment for expenses s/he may have such as for housing or car allowances.
- Organizations that clearly promote Christianity or other theistic religions are explicitly not given the tax advantages listed in #s 3-6.
- Political leaders, of all parties and at many levels, including the Presidency, routinely end their addresses to the public with statements such as “Remember, my fellow Americans, there is no reason to believe in any gods, so take care of each other.”
- There is official religious liberty throughout America, with every American free to believe in any god(s) or religion he wishes to accept.
- Atheist leaders (not all of them, but many out of the thousands of them) routinely tell their members, in speeches, debates, and articles, that religious people, especially Christians, are unreasonable, undesirable, and lost—inadequate as citizens, not to be trusted with holding office, people to be pitied and, if possible, converted from their religious ways.
- There is, among most but not all Americans, a general sense (sometimes vague, sometimes intense) that people who are religious are immoral and irresponsible—but that they should probably be tolerated in the name of freedom.
Now, after this has all sunk in about America in 2121, my single question is, “Would you think an America like that offered special rights for atheists?” Every item listed—every one of them—is true now if you change the pro-atheist bits to pro-Christian (or in some cases to broader pro-theist) bits. (#9 is the only one where no changes would be needed.) And remember that many Christians claim the more generic theistic mottos as their own—“In God We Trust” doesn’t refer to G_d or Allah, after all.
Some of these eleven, reversed out to be current, are not matters of law or government and I don’t want any governmental or legal solutions, whether it’s atheists or Christians who are being insulted or misrepresented. I am, for example, most unhappy about the general misunderstandings of what it means to be an atheist and I think those who believe atheists are immoral are profoundly mistaken—but I don’t want any government action because of this. No law should be based just on keeping an adult from being offended or insulted, and secularism (church/state separation) is not needed because of sensitive atheists or sensitive theists—it’s needed to protect everyone’s liberty.Now let me address some of the specifics of Rache511’s comments/questions. And, while I invite questions and comments from anyone who reads this, I urge everyone to treat her with respect. I’ve seen other posts from her and I think her basic question, while misguided, is sincere and not intended to be insulting.
The declaration that every other religion (besides Christianity) is treated with some sort of special attention is, I suspect, based on an unconscious misperception or hearing untrue stories. If in fact Jewish holiday displays or Muslim prayers are treated, anywhere in American spaces controlled by governments, differently from Christian ones, that is a plain violation of church/state rules. There are thousands of violations of these rules all over the nation, day in and day out. Nearly all of these are violations by people using government to promote Christianity or theism more broadly. But any of them can be protested and sued over; success in such suits means the complainant has to be willing to commit resources and (usually) to be public about it and to have “standing.” And resolving matters can have unintended consequences: a prisoner who complains about religion being forced on him by the state can pay a real and ugly price at the hands of guards or fellow prisoners even if he is right constitutionally. A parent who asks a teacher to stop opening class every day with the Lord’s Prayer can seek help in stopping the violation from American Atheists or FFRF or Americans United or ACLU or other groups and, given adequate evidence, may win a case—but may well turn his or her child into a social pariah in the process.
Did a public school principal actually try to shut down off campus lunchtime religious exercises because it created a hazard to a “healthy environment”? I don’t know what event Rache511 is referring to, but probably it’s to this one or something like it– Religious Lunch Event Causing Tension Between Organizers and School Officials. In any case like this, the detailed facts are quite important. Like the other cases she refers to, what matters to religious liberty and freedom for all—not just Christians—is whether a governmental body, paid for by all taxpayers, is or reasonably appears to be, promoting a religion or religious/irreligious perspective. If a public school is leasing a nearby public park during the day and allows an atheist group to dominate the park with a lunchtime event, it’s quite likely the school would be in violation of the First Amendment—and the same would apply to a Christian group. If a public school principal actually did declare that reading the Bible or considering worshipping Jesus is “unhealthy,” that principal would be in clear violation of the First Amendment. He would be reprimanded, and correctly so, in any public school district in America.
It is also almost certainly untrue that “Christians are barred from engaging in any type of voluntary prayer meetings in the public schools.” Without a specific case at hand to consider, it’s impossible to know for sure, but the courts have consistently held that things like meeting at the flagpole before school to pray are legal—so long as it is not the school sponsoring it and so long as the event doesn’t interfere with normal school functioning.
A public school teacher or principal is a government employee whose salary is paid by all taxpayers and if he attempts to indoctrinate students with religious or irreligious ideas he violates the First Amendment. But the same teacher can certainly attend any church—or none—and can pray or not pray any time except in his official role. Students can pray in school before that algebra test, but cannot impose their prayer on others or blame the teacher when praying doesn’t help like studying might have.
Over and over, some Christians interpret actions taken to protect religious liberty under the First Amendment as being anti-Christian, when in fact they are nothing of the sort. Books like Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War against Christianity by David Limbaugh (Regnery, 2003) recount dozens of such cases. But when those cases are carefully examined, they turn out to be pro-religious liberty and reasonable, not anti-Christian or pro-persecution. Christians, just like all the rest of us, lack the right to make religious decisions for others—and details matter.
Secularism—keeping governments and religions apart—is crucial for freedom and none of us should let misrepresentations of its real meaning and functioning undercut it. For far more on the whole subject, go to your nearest public library and ask them if they have a copy of In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty by Buckner and Buckner (Prometheus Books, 2012). In my closest public library, our book is shelved right next to David Limbaugh’s—you may want to read both.
(photo credit: Internet meme retrieved from open sources on Facebook.com)
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