church-state separation

U.S. Supreme Court launched a new church-and-state era last week. Follow-ups, please.

U.S. Supreme Court launched a new church-and-state era last week. Follow-ups, please.

“Of making many books there is no end,” complains the weary author of the Bible’s Book of Ecclesiastes. And there’s no end to lawyers making many lawsuits trying to learn what the U.S. Supreme Court thinks the Constitution means when it forbids “an establishment of religion” by government.

Journalists should provide follow-up analysis of a new era in “separation of church and state” launched June 20 with the Court’s decision to allow a century-old, 40-foot cross at a public war memorial in Maryland. Importantly, we can now assess new Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, who filed separate opinions supporting the cross display.

Actually, the nine justices produced a patchwork of eight separate opinions, which demonstrates how unstable and confused church-state law is.

Ask your sources, but The Guy figures the Court lineup now has only two flat-out separationists, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (age 86) and Sonia Sotomayor. While Samuel Alito managed to assemble five votes for part of his opinion, his four fellow conservative justices are unable to unite on a legal theory. Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan seem caught halfway between the two sides.

Federal courts have long followed the “Lemon test,” from a 1971 Court ruling of that name that outlawed public aid for secular coursework at religious schools. Chief Justice Warren Burger’s opinion devised three requirements to avoid “establishment,” that a law have a “secular” purpose, “neither advances nor inhibits religion” and doesn’t foster “excessive government entanglement with religion.”

Kavanaugh declared that the Court has now effectively abandoned Lemon in favor of a “history and tradition test,” which permits some cherished religious symbols and speech in government venues despite the “genuine and important” concern raised by dissenters.

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To Philly paper, do 4-foot crosses make Villanova span a bridge too far?

To Philly paper, do 4-foot crosses make Villanova span a bridge too far?

Nestled 12 miles north of Philadelphia's Center City, Villanova University is and always has been a Roman Catholic institution, founded by two Augustinian priests in 1841. The school avoided damage from the 1844 Philadelphia Nativist Riots, although the financial impact on its sponsors closed the school for a season.

But from 1846 until today, Villanova has been a fixture in the academic firmament of southeastern Pennsylvania, in the "Main Line" suburb of Radnor. So much so that the school wants to construct a pedestrian bridge over busy Lancaster Avenue, joining two sections of the growing campus. Radnor officials approved the construction of the bridge at a recent board of commissioners (or, BOC) meeting.

Not exactly headline-grabbing news, right?

Well, 'Nova (as alumni fondly refer to the school) is Roman Catholic, and wouldn't you know, those good Catholic people like to put crosses on things, such as buildings on the campus? (Take a look at the opening sequence of the orientation video above. In about the first 20 seconds, there are plenty of crosses on campus buildings, and not just the main church, that are visible.)

And yes, 'Nova wants to place crosses on the new bridge. That makes it news, at least for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which topped its account with the hair-smoldering-if-not-on-fire headline:

Radnor approves Villanova's controversial cross-adorned pedestrian bridge

There's a bit of verbiage here, but read on to find the bone of contention:

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Dear Lexington editors: If Linus doesn't say you know what, then what is he allowed to say?

Dear Lexington editors: If Linus doesn't say you know what, then what is he allowed to say?

OK, close your eyes. You are watching television during the season before Christmas. To be specific, you are watching "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

So Charlie Brown -- I can't imagine calling him either "Charlie" or "Brown," under Associated Press style -- has purchased the sad little Christmas tree and all the other children are mocking him. Even Snoopy is laughing. Then they all exit, stage right.

The lovable loser shouts: "Isn't there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?"

At that point, Linus van Pelt steps forward and answers in the affirmative. Then he walks to the center of the stage and, alone in a spotlight, says ...

Says what? 

Millions and millions of Americans know what Linus says in his pivotal speech in the classic television special. The question, in a "Christmas wars" update from The Lexington Herald-Leader, is what does Linus say in the controversial production of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" that is being staged at W.R. Castle Elementary School in Johnson County, Kentucky? Here is the top of this hollow story:

When students perform the play “A Charlie Brown Christmas” at W.R. Castle Elementary School in Johnson County on Thursday, the scene in which the character Linus quotes from the Bible is set to be deleted.

Johnson County Schools Superintendent Thomas Salyer told the Herald-Leader Tuesday that Christmas programs across the district were being reviewed for possible modifications of religious references. That news had led people to protest outside school district offices for a second day. ...

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Which religions favor separation of church and state?

Which religions favor separation of church and state?

LISA ASKS:

Do all religions teach separation between church and state? If not, which ones and why?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Separation of church and state (the usual phrasing though “of religion and state” is often more accurate) is an achievement of modern politics and by no means a universal one. Among world religions, after long struggle Christianity helped create the concept and broadly favors aspects of it in most countries. Islam stands at the opposite end of the spectrum, often considering it alien if not abhorrent. Interactions between religions and governments through history are too complex to summarize but The Guy will sketch some high points.

America’s latest church-and-state fuss (analyzed May 10 in “Religion Q and A”) involves Supreme Court allowance of prayers before local council meetings, even in a town where most of them were explicitly Christian. Americans United for Separation of Church and State is alarmed, asking in a headline whether this ruling is “putting the country on the path to church-state union.”

Well, no. There’s a vast gap between brief civic invocations and any “union,” and America to a remarkable degree has avoided situations common elsewhere, for instance:

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Should the high court have backed town council prayers?

[Regarding the U.S. Supreme Court's new Greece v. Galloway ruling that allows prayers before town council meetings]: Is the door being nudged open for an ugly discourse on separation of church and state? Brad fears this pro-prayer decision might stir up ugliness, but The Guy thinks there’s be more of it if the Court had instead barred invocations like those in Greece, New York. Americans generally like prayers to solemnize civic occasions from inauguration of the president on down, and politicians naturally go along. Briefs in Greece’s favor were signed by 85 members of the U.S. House and 34 U.S. Senators. Most were Republicans, but the Obama Administration likewise filed in support. Though civic prayers are popular or considered useful to the republic, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily good for the Christian faith. Hold that thought.

Politicians aside, many news reports missed that all 9 Supreme Court justices were favorable toward council prayers. The four liberal dissenters, sounding much like the five majority conservatives, stated that local council meetings need not “be religion- or prayer-free” and that’s because “legislative prayer has a distinctive constitutional warrant by virtue of tradition.” Mainly, the liberals protested because Greece loaded up its lineup of prayer-givers with earnest Christians and made little effort to include religious minorities.

The Constitution’s Bill of Rights begins “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Though that commands only Congress, the “incorporation” doctrine (which Justice Thomas rejects) extends this to actions by state and local governments.

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Pod people: Reindeers and the quest for nonsectarian prayer

So why, you ask, is that generic civic Christmas scene on top of this GetReligion post as the temperatures in the Greater Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area finally begin to show signs of real summer baseball weather? I am assuming that, at this point, we have seen our last snow flurries in these parts. I’ll come back to the reindeer in a minute. Trust me, there is a logical connection between that image and the subject material in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which as usual is a joint production of the GetReligionistas and host Todd Wilken of Issues, Etc. Click here to listen in.

For now, click pause on your reflections on years of the “reindeer wars,” which is actually one of the busiest fronts in America’s lively “Christmas Wars.” I want you to picture another church-state battlefield.

Let’s pretend that it is 10 minutes before a meeting of a government body in some typical American setting, perhaps even a place with a name like Town of Greece or what have you.

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Read this story and weep! But ask a few more questions

Every now and then, I receive private emails, or emails sent through our contact link, that sound something like this: So why aren’t you guys writing about this story? You afraid to or are you just too prejudiced or only interested in stories that allegedly attack conservative Christians. Then the email will include a link to a news story — almost all of them perfectly valid — that talks about an event or a subject in which a minority religious group (in the American context, in most cases) is being attacked or treated badly.

In other words a story rather like the following Associated Press report, which ran at the ABC News site under this headline: “ACLU Accuses La. School of Religious Harassment.” More on that in a minute.

Now the problem is that many of these stories are actually rather ordinary. They get the job done and there isn’t really much to comment on — negative or positive — in terms of the nuts-and-bolts of journalism. Here’s the bottom line: Most of the time, what these correspondents want to do is argue about THE ISSUE at the heart of the story, not a journalism issue in the new coverage.

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Really? Editors who don't know about the 'reindeer rules'?

Sorry about this, folks, but we need to take a quick glance back at a lingering “Christmas wars” story from 2013. You would think, by this time, that everyone within a light year or two of a newsroom and/or public courthouse would have heard of the whole “reindeer rules” battles linked to public officials allowing the erection of Christmas creches (or Menorahs) on public property. If you want a quick refresher on some related issues, check out this recent post from our resident Godbeat patriarch Richard Ostling.

As always, let me state right up front that — on the creche issue itself — I have no idea why so many religious people want to put plastic versions of the symbols of their faith on the lawns of the secular sanctuaries where you have to go to fight about traffic tickets, to have a secular marriage rite, etc., etc. If creches are all that important, why not have every single church in town put one up, along with waves of public symbolism on patches of private property, and save all of the lawyer fees for charitable use?

But back to the public-square issue and the resulting journalism issues. As I wrote about a decade ago:

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Latest coverage from the church of The New York Times

Few news consumers would be surprised that the journalists at Baptist Press frame their coverage of controversial moral and cultural issues in a way that supports the doctrines affirmed by the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest non-Catholic flock of believers.

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