Religion and the public sphere

11 Aug

I feel the need to write this because two days ago I went with a friend to see a band concert in a local botanical garden. The gardens are public and payed for by public taxes. The band started off the concert by playing two religious songs. This was totally fine and didn’t bother me. I would have thought nothing of it had it not been for the idiot leading the concert. After the two starting songs were over, he went up to the microphone and said something to the effect of “Aren’t those lovely songs? I wonder how long we’ll be allowed to play those songs, we really enjoy them, but someday we might not be allowed to play them anymore here on public property. Just something to think about. Right now as we speak the entire city council is off at a prayer rally.”

Seriously? He obviously was trying to scare people about the atheists and the “godless” ACLU (though the ALCU fights for everybody’s rights, religious people included). Look people, we need to get something straight here. Contrary to what the facts optional fear peddlers are trying to tell you, atheists are NOT trying to remove all religion from the public sphere. We are not trying to ban bibles, we are not trying to ban the playing of religious music on public property, we’re not trying to make it illegal to be religious. (Though I can’t say the same about you) Here, lets see if you can spot the difference between these two pictures:

If you answered “One is constitutional, and one is unconstitutional” you would be correct! The man on the left is exercising his 1st amendment rights of free speech and freedom of religion. The monument on the right is a violation of that very same amendment. Do you understand why? Simple: one is a private citizen, the other is a government monument built with tax payer money. The very same amendment that guarantees the man on the left his rights to do what he is doing, prohibits the government from building monuments like the one on the right. Everything the government does must have a secular purpose. If it does not, then it is unconstitutional via the 1st amendment.

The problem religious people have is that both instances are equal in their mind. Not letting them build a religious monument to their particular faith with other people’s money and barring them from placing it on public land owned by a government that’s supposed to be neutral and serve everyone equally is, in their minds, inhibiting their freedom of religion and freedom of speech. This is absurd. You can’t use public funds to promote your private faith. It’s that simple. Christians would be outraged if Muslims wanted to use tax payer money to build a monument to the koran and place it in front of the city courthouse! It goes both ways, so the first amendment tells the government to just stay out of the whole mess entirely.

But GP, what if a group of private citizens pay for the construction of the monument and then wish to place it in front of the courthouse? Nope, sorry, still illegal. Although the monument would be privately funded, it would still be on public land. Same would be true if a bunch of Muslims privately funded their koran monument. You can’t go around placing monuments and statues on public property at will, regardless of what they’re about; it would just be chaos. This is why we have building permits before people can build anything. Any governmental body handing out a permit to build such a statue would be violating the first amendment. The big difference here between the monument and the person standing in the street is permanence. The 2 ton stone monument is permanent, the person is only there till they go home. This is why standing on public property while holding a sign is ok, but planting that sign on public property and leaving is not ok. A permanent statue/monument/structure on public land an endorsement by the government of that statue/monument/structure.

Public land is everyone’s property, not just yours. I can’t come to your house and build a monument to atheists on your lawn for the same reason you can’t put the a monument to an aspect of your religion on public property. Yes, I might own and have funded the construction of that monument to atheists on your lawn, but it still is your lawn. Same goes for public places.

You see, people who are defending the wall of separation between church and state are fighting to make sure the government stays neutral when it comes to religion. Thus government owned public spheres must be neutral. The key word here is government. Private citizens have the right to exercise their freedoms in that public sphere. Atheists and the ACLU are not trying to take that away from you. What most Christians fail to realize is that atheists and the ACLU are their allies on this issue. Not in the sense that we want to help them propagate their faith with tax payer money, but in the sense that we are fighting for their protection as much as ours. Being in the majority can blind you to things in a way that being a minority can open your eyes. For example, pretend for a moment that the United States is Muslim in 100 years. Pretend that Christians are now a minority. You wouldn’t want the government to endorse Islam over your faith. You wouldn’t want your money paying to build a giant stone koran in front of your town’s courthouse. You would want the government to stay out of it, just as the first amendment details, despite the fact that the majority of the government is now full of Muslims. That anger you’re feeling, imagining  this potential scenario, that’s how atheists feel now about your attempts to push Christianity into the public sphere on the back of taxpayer money.

You will always have the right to express yourself and your beliefs in the public sphere. You will always have the right to play religious music at an event held on government property. Atheists and the ACLU are NOT trying to take that away from you. In fact, we will come to your defense if anyone ever does try to take those rights away from you. Surprised? Don’t be. If they can take those freedoms away from one group, regardless of who they are, there’s no telling who might be next.

So in conclusion, Mr. Band director, no. No you do not have to worry about one day being denied the right to play those religious songs on public property. Nobody is trying to take that away from you, and nobody should try. You are spouting baseless nonsense. Shut up and play.

2 Responses to “Religion and the public sphere”

  1. bibowen August 18, 2010 at 9:27 am #

    You are mistaken about Roy Moore’s Ten Commandments Monument being paid for by government money (it was privately financed). However, it wouldn’t have been unconstitutional even if it had been publically financed. Jefferson gave public money for the evangelization of the American Indians. Moore discusses the financing of the Monument and why the monument was constitutional in his book So Help Me God.

  2. godlesspaladin August 18, 2010 at 10:30 am #

    It still would have been unconstitutional and luckily the courts realized that. I find it hard to believe that Jefferson, a strong deist, would give money so people could go preach Jesus to natives. Where is the source and evidence for this? Also, even if he did, just because a found father did something doesn’t make it constitutional. Jefferson wrestled with himself when deciding whether or not to go through with the Louisiana purchase from Napoleon. He knew it was unconstitutional, but he did it anyways.

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