Wednesday, January 18, 2006

On Being Offended by Public Religious Devotion

Is it possible that, one day in the not too distant future, I, as a senior citizen, might be socked with a misdemeanor just for reading my Prayer book (required daily prayer for priests) on a bus? My fears stem from the following. Not only did Justice Hugo Black insist, many years ago, that absolutely nothing of government money can, in any way, be used to support any religious behavior but, with presently surfacing legal insights, I, also, might be violating someone’s alleged constitutional right not to be offended. Could my reading an official Catholic and quasi-public prayer on a bus which is supported significantly by government money, become cause for an ACLU protest? Could I be arrested because I might “offend” a fellow passenger with my very visible personal “devotion” in addition to, allegedly, violating our cherished separation of State and Church? One notes the word “Church” is accurately used, if one understands history and law. But there is no separation between State and religion. The distinction is significant and substantive. My “arrest” would arise from an inaccurate understanding of constitutional law.

However, is there any reality to my vague discomfort that someday I might be forbidden to wear a clerical collar in the public Square? Or that religious Sisters could be arrested for appearing in their religious Habits? Is my historical awareness (and dis-ease) of the early 20th century Mexican situation inappropriate?

Is it paranoid to imagine that someday in a wild, wide eyed Crusade reminiscent of the Salem witch hunts, Crosses would be declared unlawful if visible from public streets? Is it utterly absurd to worry that I might be forbidden someday to proclaim my deepest Faith beliefs by which I run my life? Even from my own pulpit? That some small town merchant in western Canada was fined for not supporting certain homosexual causes or that an Anglican pastor in England was threatened with the loss of his parish should he continue to preach politically incorrect homilies, might be dismissed as isolated cases of nuttiness were it not for relatively concrete data indicating a well organized secularist movement (if small in number) and one which gives me great concern.

Why my discomfort about the threat to remove the motto, “In God we trust,” on our currency which has meant so much to me ever since I could read? Might we lose it? Might the Courts and Legislatures vote that prayers invoking the protection and guidance of God be forbidden? Could all religious symbols be removed from public buildings? If I am a chaplain in the Armed Forces, will I be forbidden to wear a Cross on my uniform lapel? Will I be instructed to disguise my status as a priest and will I be designated as some kind of secular “morale officer” to run bingo games? Will it be forbidden to me to celebrate Holy Mass for young Catholic soldiers in a tent purchased by taxpayers’ money? Will crosses be removed from the tombstones at Arlington cemetery? Will our maintenance (even if limited) of the Omaha beach cemetery shrine be neglected because so many crosses mark the graves of thousands of brave American dead who fought for our freedom and way of life? The deduction of such conclusions from certain questionable premises might well lead to the implementation of what I consider the ungodly, the un-American and the toxic! It is possible!

To counter the knee-jerk response of some of my good but na├»ve friends who suggest, even kindly, that I am on the verge of “going bananas”, I offer some reasons for my discomfort. First, the relatively recent Supreme Court decision on the sodomy laws of Texas. When Justice Scalia wrote that the Majority decision well might usher in a whole series of moral breakdowns, including so-called Gay Marriage, one of his well intentioned (Justice) colleagues opined that such a fear was utterly unfounded, particularly the issue of same sex marriage which was considered totally impossible

In less than one year, the drums began to beat for marriage of same sex partners, not merely some kind of civil recognition but specifically for marriage. Of course, no one thought that such legitimization would be acceptable to this Nation. Suddenly, it is front and center. And now, to oppose or even question the prudence of legalizing, as marriage, homosexual lifestyles (considered by a majority of Americans to be destructive and immoral) is to invite such vitriol rarely even whispered in this country. There is little room for calm, adult dialogue. The notion of hearing the other guy out seems to be vanishing. As an example, we have seen the brutal shouting down of Ann Coulter who was invited to give a traditional and now controversial point of view in an American University. The intolerant treatment was unbelievable in a society presumed to be open to an exchange of ideas.

Additionally, I note the instance of Pepsi Cola’s silent move to remove “Under God” from the pledge of Allegiance which is printed on the Company’s soda containers (lest some one be offended). I note the move in California to remove crosses along the road because they annoy an atheist motorist. I note (as quoted by Roger Hitchcock on the Limbaugh program) that a state Governor has forbidden any public prayer to end “In Jesus’ Name.” I note the innumerable school principals who forbid students from voluntary (even silent) prayer before sports events and who utterly exclude any kind of religious acknowledgement at graduations. The rationale for such oppression is that “someone” might be offended. I note the really nutty prohibition of certain colors (red and green) in public schools at Christmas time because of a possible link to Christ which again might hurt some one’s feelings. Who is the offended “some one”? Not only is he statistically minuscule but, apart from a few noisy ones, he is often shadowy and elusive. Nevertheless, whence this creeping slippery slope?

Clearly, it is a given that all Americans are guaranteed the right to freely exercise their various religions however they please. The First Amendment specifically intends to protect citizens’ religious expression from government interference. Constitutionally and historically, there is no notion of protection of government from religious forces. It is simply stated that there will be no federal or national church. There is no separation of state from religion but only separation from an official church as was the case in England which strongly affected the Framers.

By some kind of ironic legal twist, the unthinkables, noted above, somehow have become possible. In an atmosphere of “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest”, all the above (and much more) are gaining legal shape and form. Now to justify these un-American behaviors, someone has come up with the battle cry of absurdity---“The right NOT to be offended.” How far does this go? Where did all this come from?

A highly respected Constitutional lawyer, Marc Levin (called “the great” in Television and radio circles) gives a probable genesis of the tragedy in his book “Men in Black.” On Page 48, he references the l962 Supreme Court ruling of Engel v. Vitale which outlawed state-sponsored prayer in a controversial and dubious decision which was at odds with American history. Justice A. Kennedy wrote that public benedictions were unfair pressures on un-believers to maintain respectful silence and which made them feel as “outsiders.” This was called the “Coercion test.” The implications of Kennedy’s write up are enormously dangerous to religious freedom.

Meanwhile, Professor Vincent Munoz, an American Enterprise Scholar, picks this absurdity apart. He points out that the “test” secures “the right not to feel uncomfortable.”

Such discomfort will trump (in the logic of the Court) the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion. It is now beginning to apply to the right “not to be offended.” But does this apply to my feeling offended when each summer a “Gay” Parade prances down a major street in my city, holding up traffic, littering the streets, costing my city tax money to hire Police for overtime pay, when they flaunt what my own Faith holds to be immodest, when they shout obscenities about my religious leader? Apparently, this is different because they tell me that their behavior is only establishing identity while people like me are breaking the tenets of the First Amendment when we publicly pray a general and silent prayer or even mention a Deity.

In effect, where does the right not to be offended stop? Is there a limit which reasonable people can agree upon? Or who decides what is offensive? Further, what happens to the concept of Democracy which, in my understanding, is the rule of the will of majority? Is a country to be ruled by a vocal and committed tiny minority? I thought this was a discarded, pre-Christian and obsolete form of rule called Oligarchy!

Americans are rightly proud of our history and our political system, the like of which has never be seen anywhere in the history of man. It is important to remember that the Declaration of Independence (an authentic clue as to the intentions of the Founders) is not merely an historical document. It explicitly recognizes that human rights do not derive from Kings or Parliaments, government or the judiciary. It states that rights come from God. “Endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…” Our religious practice is not alien to our political philosophy but even integral to it. It is obvious that the fears expressed above are real. They must be countered since the material of the fears is basically an attack on our founding principles. Our tradition teaches that we do not rely on government (and certainly not the courts) as the source of our rights. An elementary sophistication about the source of our rights which are unalienable quickly indicates a source higher than our selves. If such rights came, not from a higher source, but from the state, they become malleable and are therefore not unalienable. Even a dirty necked kid from the tenements like me can see that this is a prescription for tyranny against which our forefathers fought a terrible war. Marc Levin taught me this. He is clearly right. May God protect these United States!

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