Rob Boston: Not Bothered By Religious Displays On Government Property? Good For You. Many Others Still Are.

Dec. 18, 2018 – AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee took part in a symposium last week sponsored by the popular website SCOTUSblog, which covers cases at the U.S. Supreme Court. Richard was among several writers commenting on a pending case challenging the government’s display of a 40-foot-tall cross in Bladensburg, Md.

The cross has been described as a memorial to Maryland’s World War I veterans, but Richard takes issue with that, pointing out that a cross can’t memorialize non-Christians. His column is thoughtful and well worth your time.

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As I was reading some of the other pieces written by symposium participants, a passage by Luke Goodrich, vice-president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund, a group that’s often on the opposite side of church-state issues from Americans United, jumped out at me.

Goodrich argues for applying what he calls a historical analysis to these types of disputes over religious displays. He asserts that this approach “reduces needless conflict over passive religious displays. Does anyone (other than church-state militants) relish the annual ‘wars’ over local Christmas and Hanukkah displays? Love them or hate them, these displays aren’t harming anyone.”

What Goodrich and others who make this argument are really saying here is, “These displays don’t bother me.” That’s fine for him, but he has absolutely no authority to speak for anyone else, nor can he blithely dismiss such displays as “passive.” They’re anything but that, and his assertion that a sectarian symbol plunked right down in the middle of the seat of government doesn’t harm anyone is, to be frank, offensive tripe. It’s typical of the sort of religious privilege one hears frequently from the Religious Right.

Let’s say you’re a Jew, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a Humanist, a Wiccan, a Pagan or a Zoroastrian. You approach city hall, the police department or the public library of your town and there’s a large nativity scene on the steps. Let’s say it was put there by the local government or by a church working in cooperation with the government. This is not a free-for-all where any groups can erect a symbol. It’s sitting there alone.

That sends a message: We, the officials of this diverse community, have a favorite religion. Here is its symbol, resting prominently in front of this government building. We favor this faith above all others and certainly more than non-belief. If you share this faith, you are one of us, and we think well of you. If you don’t share it, you’re an outsider, a second-class citizen. Of course, you’re still tolerated in this town. By law, we have to let you and those who believe as you do engage in your activities, but we know the real religion. The true one. We’ve put it on display right here. So do your thing, but understand that you are not a full member of this community. Your religion or non-belief is not the one we have chosen to enshrine. We think less of it. And you, a taxpayer and a resident of this town, will be reminded of that every time you come to this public place.

Or consider the Bladensburg cross. It is owned and maintained by the government, and it memorializes Christian war veterans. It highlights the sacrifices of Christians. It honors them and expresses appreciation for the Christians who died, singling them out as heroes.

Here’s what it says to the non-Christians who fought and died to preserve our freedoms: We do not recognize your sacrifice. We don’t honor it. In fact, we don’t even see it.

True, that’s not an injury in the sense of someone assaulting you with their fists or lifting your wallet while you’re at the mall. But it’s certainly an injury of another type. It is callous. It is rude. It is thoughtless. It makes distinctions among our people on the basis of their religious or philosophical views. It establishes a religious pecking order. And for that reason, it ought to be unconstitutional.

I’m glad that Goodrich does not feel harmed by government-sponsored religious displays on public property. Bully for him. It’s too bad he can’t see outside his comfortable cocoon of privilege and consider how it feels to be told, sometimes on a daily basis, that because of what you believe (or don’t believe) about God, you are little more than a guest in your own community.

Rob Boston is senior adviser and editor of Church & State, Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s monthly membership magazine. www.au.org