Tis the Season for Church-State Lawsuits!

Tis the Season for Church-State Lawsuits! December 13, 2011

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.

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