Thursday, July 1, 2010

Prepositions are important

Remember that ruling that banned crucifixes in Italian schools? The ruling is being appealed:
BRUSSELS — A European ruling banning crucifixes in Italian schools should be overturned, nine European governments said in an appeal Wednesday.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled that crucifixes in Italian public schools violate religious and education freedoms last November. The case, part of a larger debate over the role of religious symbols in public places, has sharpened divisions between secular and religious advocacy groups.

Italian courts have previously ruled that the display of crucifixes is part of Italian national identity and not an attempt at conversion, an argument expanded by New York University legal scholar Joseph Weiler on behalf of the governments of Italy, Armenia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Malta, San Marino, Romania and Russia, who are appealing the ruling.

The decisions of the court — an arm of the Council of Europe, the continent's premier human rights watchdog — are binding on the council's 47 member states and therefore have an impact far beyond Italy.

"The democratic cohesion of society is dependent on the ability to uphold national symbols around which all society can coalesce," Weiler said. "It would be a strange (if Italy) had to abandon national symbols, and strip from its cultural identikit, any symbol which also had a religious significance."

Crucifixes are commonly displayed in Italian schools and public places.

In its Nov. 3 ruling, the European court said the crucifix could be disturbing to non-Christian or atheist pupils. It added that state-run schools must "observe confessional neutrality in the context of public education," where attendance is compulsory.

This is a fight over a preposition: is a secular state one in which freedom of religion is valued, or is a secular state one in which freedom from religion is mandated in the public square?

The ruling regarding the crucifixes, like many similar rulings dealing with religious symbols here in America, takes the latter position. So extreme is the idea that the public square must be free from religion that this recent Supreme Court ruling held, in effect, that the cross in question was actually, somehow, a secular symbol.

But it's not necessary to insist that crosses, crucifixes, menorahs, etc. displayed on public land are actually secular symbols and thus it's okay to put them on land paid for by public funds or in buildings owned by the government. All that is necessary is to have an understanding of what the concept of "freedom of religion" really means.

It means that the government doesn't officially recognize one religion or denomination over all the others. It means that there is no established church supported by tax dollars. It means that the indoctrination of one particular religion or denomination does not take place in publicly-funded schools (but that religious schools are free to establish themselves and operate without government interference). It means that there are no fines or other punishments for failing to belong to the government church.

It does not mean that there can be no religious symbols in a classroom, especially in a nation with a strong heritage of one religion or another. It does not mean that religious speech is or ought to be prohibited any time it might make a non-religious person feel uncomfortable. It does not mean that a country can't put "In God We Trust" on the money, or write the phrase "under God," into its pledge of allegiance. It does not mean that the secular state must have a default preference for atheism or agnosticism in the public square, or that religious speech, ideas, symbols, and displays ought to be treated as though they are de facto less valuable than non-religious speech, ideas, symbols or displays.

Our Founding Fathers thought Americans should have freedom of religion. They probably would have found the notion of freedom from religion to be something which actually impinged rather seriously on the true freedom of the people of a free nation.


WillyJ said...

Very good. Next thing is to determine exactly what 'religion' is. Atheists will not agree that atheism is also a religion.

Magister Christianus said...

Insightful and incisive argument. Well done! This is indeed the issue, and we have blindly allowed ourselves to think that "of" means "from." In fact, in this context, "of" and "from" are opposed, for how can I have freedome of religion and thus enjoy the right to practice my religion if I am denied the right to talk about it in the public square, especially when my religion is Christianity with its emphasis on evangelism? I can no more be a true and practicing Christian in private silence than I can be a mute opera singer.

Rebecca in CA said...

Okay, I have a question about one thing you said:

"It means that the indoctrination of one particular religion or denomination does not take place in publicly-funded schools (but that religious schools are free to establish themselves and operate without government interference)."

It seems like if this is the founders' intention, then the old practice of Christian prayer in schools was contrary to their intention? And it seems like if this were strictly true, "school time" would have to be devoid of religion, which is itself a kind of indoctrination, since as Christians we believe everything should be done in the name of Christ...doesn't this seem problematic to you? I don't really have a position on this, except to think that the founders did assume that people were at least Christian, and would remain so, in some basic way, and I don't know how that should be handled when you start getting a large percentage of students who are not Christian at all. If you aren't allowed to "indoctrinate" with any particular religion, I don't see any alternative but to banish prayer altogether, or teachers mentioning God, unless you think there should be some kind of very vague prayer to an undefined deity? I'd like to hear more of your thoughts on this.

Rebecca in CA said...

I was unclear--I was speaking about *public* schools rather than private religious schools in the question posed above.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Manning, your argument is sound to a point. And I agree, the twisted logic the Court used to rule that the Cross is not really a religious symbol is foolish.

However, the problem with your position is that it does not recognize that there are a significant number of Christians who do NOT want the Public Square to be accessible to all religious expression. The Summum case filings show that many of the same groups that have been involved in these symbol cases place themselves on the other side of the ledger if the religion involved is not one of the mainstream religions in this nation.

I agree there must be a middle ground here. That middle ground should be a place where all religious groups have equal access to the public square, classroom, and government buildings for reasonable display of their religious displays. That means not only Christians and Jews should have their displays in front of the courthouse during their holy days, but Wiccans, Buddhists, Satanists, and any other religious group should have exactly the same access during their particular holy/special days.

To me this seems to be a reasonable compromise that honors not only the letter but also the intent of the Constitution. I would hope you would agree with this.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I don't know what I'd think if I live in Italy. On the one hand, the country has centuries of being uniformly Catholic and hosting the Pontiffs. On the other hand, Italy gained its freedom and became a united country, then eventually a republic, with a certain amount of necessary conflict with the Vatican, depriving the Popes of their feudal estates and the rent rolls of their vassals. But I don't live in Italy, and I'm not convinced that Italy has to do things the way my country does things, or the way I, as an American, think they should be done.

If we're going to talk about what is constitutional in America, we should talk about what the plain language of the Constitution says. It does not say "freedom of religion" nor "freedom from religion," it says two things:

Congress shall pass no law respecting an establishment of religion...

...nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Establishment is a public matter. Free exercise is private. Private doesn't mean it should be hidden from public view. But the balance is, the government may not display a cross, and private individuals, organizations, societies, churches have the right to do so without government interference, on their own property.

Charlie said...

Actually, the Supreme Court's muddled decision about the cross in the California desert didn't really reach the question, of freedom of religion, nor free exercise, nor establishment, although it does seem the plaintiff, Buono, seeks freedom from religion as his understanding of nonestablishment.

The court issued a variety of opinions, none commanding a majority, largely quibbling about what deadlines had passed, and what they meant. A majority agreed that the cross could stay, because the federal district court owed some deference to Congress's decision that a good resolution would be to deed the land on which the cross stood to the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Not to take up acres of space on another person's blog, the complex reasoning of the court is broken down for non-lawyers at

Rebecca in CA said...

If the statement that government cannot respect a certain religion means, necessarily, that it cannot display a cross, wouldn't that also mean that it cannot put "In God we Trust" on money--in other words, those who wrote those words *were* putting God on their money, right, so did they really mean that anything connected with government cannot have anything to do with a religion? I don't have a position; I'm really just wondering here...

Siarlys Jenkins said...

The words "In God We Trust" were not put on American currency until about 100 years after our nation became independent. That, in itself, doesn't mean that our founders and framers did or did not consider such a motto appropriate. It derives from one of the later, and seldom-sung, verses of the Star Spangled Banner, "and this be our motto, in God is our trust," which was originally written by a private citizen who could put whatever he wanted into his own verse, but which was later adopted as our national anthem.

Its hard to say exactly what the founders did or did not intend, because there were so many of them, and they each had their own opinion. Benjamin Franklin doubted the divinity of Jesus, but said he was not much worried about it, because he was getting old and would soon find out. He seems to have presumed, as I would, that Jesus would be more amused to reveal the truth to a skeptic than inclined to punish him eternally for his doubt. Franklin genuinely wanted to know.

Patrick Henry wanted to provide state funding for the support of clergy -- probably only for Protestant clergy. Etc.

I like Samuel Adams's resolution of the question whether men of such diverse belief could open a session of the Continental Congress with prayer. "I am no bigot, and I can listen to a prayer offered by a man of piety and virtue who is also a friend to his country." No one can LEAD a government body in prayer, but a prayer can be OFFERED FOR the session of a legislature.

In God We Trust? Oh, why not. Who is really hurt by it? If you're that devout an atheist, stick to paying with your debit card.