In recent years, religious conservative, have pushed to give Christian Protestantism a protected role in society.
In 2009, the conservatively-controlled Oklahoma State Legislature authorized a controversial piece of sculpture to be placed in front of the statehouse. Since the installation of the privately-funded Ten Commandments monument in 2012, many have seen the move as an inappropriate endorsement of Christian ideology by the state government — a possible violation of the tenet separating church and state.
“The monument’s placement at the Capitol has created a more divisive and hostile state for many Oklahomans,” said Ryan Kiesel, American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma’s executive director. “When the government literally puts one faith on a pedestal, it sends a strong message to Oklahomans of other faiths that they are less than equal.”
In recent years, the Republican Party, particularly, religious conservatives, have pushed to give Christian Protestantism a protected role in society. In 1999, the Kansas Board of Education moved to no longer mandate the teaching of evolution. As late as September of this year, religious conservatives on the Texas state textbook review panels urged the State Board of Education to reject textbooks that did not offer disclaimers against evolution or offer equal space for creationism. As Texas is the single largest buyer of textbooks, this could theoretically affect textbooks in other states.
A 1987 U.S. Supreme Court ruling banned the teaching of creation theory as science in the nation’s public schools. In Texas, the question of support for prayer in school has became a major issue in the Republican lieutenant governor race, with three of the four candidates supporting a return of prayer to the classroom — despite 1963’s Abington School District v. Schempp ruling that school-organized religious activities in state-run schools were prohibited. In February, Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a law permitting student-led prayer in public schools.
The merging of personal ideology with public sentiment tends to create situations in which policy is created to address the needs of the few at the expense of the discomfort of the many. Last week, the Satanic Temple moved to fund a memorial that would sit aside the Ten Commandments memorial.
“I feel that the statue is only problematic when it stands alone,” said Lucien Greaves, a spokesman for the Satanic Temple, a New York-based church, in regards to the Ten Commandment sculpture. “It would change the dynamic with our monument there. We aren’t objecting to the Ten Commandments monument, we’re objecting to the monument standing alone.”
Greaves has suggested that the favored design currently is an interactive display for children. While defenders of the public presentation of the Ten Commandments reject the Satanists’ argument that access for one religion equates to access for all religions, in reality, it would be difficult to make such an exemption for just Protestant Christianity.
“I think these Satanists are a different group. You put them under the nut category,” Republican State Rep. Bobby Cleveland told The Huffington Post.
Brady Henderson, legal director for the ACLU Oklahoma, said it would be preferable to see Oklahoma’s government officials work to serve communities and improve the lives of Oklahomans, instead of erecting granite monuments to show how righteous they are.
“But if the Ten Commandments, with its overtly Christian message, is allowed to stay at the Capitol, the Satanic Temple’s proposed monument cannot be rejected because of its different religious viewpoint,” Henderson said.
Within this dichotomy lies the debate on public religious symbols. While presentations such as the recently-opened Nativity Scene at the Florida State Capitol, the proposed installation of a Ten Commandments memorial at the Georgia State Capitol, and the established or proposed installation of chapels in the statehouses for Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma and Indiana, can be argued to be innocuous or innocent, such assumptions would require either agreement or tolerance for the beliefs represented by the presentation.
Similar to Rep. Cleveland’s rejection of the Satanists’ proposal, for non-Christians, acceptance of public displays of Christian belief may be difficult to accept.
On Dec.12, the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties won a case brought on behalf of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America to have a 43-foot Latin cross removed from the Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego. The decision was the upholding of a 2011 ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that stated that the cross violated the fundamental understanding of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“We acknowledge the good intentions and heartfelt emotions on all sides of this dispute, and recognize the sincere anguish that will be felt regardless of whether we affirm or reverse the district court,” wrote the Court of Appeals in its opinion. “At the same time, in adopting the First Amendment, the Founders were prescient in recognizing that, without eschewing religion, neither can the government be seen as favoring one religion over another. The balance is subtle but fundamental to our freedom of religion.”
In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider a challenge to the Court of Appeals ruling. In 1993, a district court in the 9th Circuit ruled that the cross’s presence on public land was unconstitutional and ordered the City of San Diego to remove or demolish it, saying that the cross “carries an inherently religious message and creates an appearance of honoring only those servicemen of that particular religion.”
The city made several attempts to circumvent the court rulings before reaching an settlement in 2004 with the petitioners to move the cross to a neighboring church, saving it.
However, some in the community could not accept the moving of the cross and forced a rejection of the deal. Ultimately, this group successfully lobbying Congress to declare the cross a “historic symbol of Christianity in America.”
Congress declared the cross a national veterans memorial and seized the surrounding property by eminent domain. The ACLU argued that while the cross — within itself — is not necessarily offensive, it does not represent all veterans and is, therefore, serving to favor one group over another.
The politics of exclusion
In 2009, a similar case was argued before the Supreme Court over the National Park Service’s plan to remove an eight-foot cross from the Mojave National Preserve in San Bernardino County, Calif.
Erected as early as 1934 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, it was meant to be a memorial for veterans who died in World War I. The cross was not permitted for construction and was removed and replaced many times. Despite this, the VFW argued it was a “national memorial” and Congress — in 2002 — declared the acre surrounding the cross protected and of historical interest. The acreage was granted to the VFW.
In the Supreme Court case Salazar v. Buono, it was argued that the cross — as a symbol — failed to accurately represent the U.S. military, which has a non-Christian religious population of 11 percent and an atheistic population of 21 percent. In arguments, the petitioner argued that the use of a Christian cross to memorialize the dead sends out the message that the military is only memorializing the Christian dead.
While the Supreme Court rejected this argument, saying that the removal of all religious symbols are not necessary to maintain government impartiality to all faiths, many experts feel that there is a difference from what is intended and what is perceived.
“It’s clear to me and many other former military officers that the proposal does not live up to the government’s obligation not to favor any particular religion,” wrote Israel Drazin, a retired Army brigadier general, for the Los Angeles Times. “The cross is unquestionably a sectarian religious symbol that … would convey the message that the military values the sacrifices of Christian war dead over those of service members belonging to other faiths.
“When the symbols of several religions are displayed together, for example, or when religious symbols are accompanied by nonreligious monuments, it’s generally clear to all that no particular faith is being promoted above all others and that the contributions of all fallen soldiers and veterans are equally honored.”
Drazin pointed out that individual crosses on graves represent the individuals’ personal belief, not the government’s recognition of those belief — making the government construction of any religious symbol in a memorial or grave site inappropriate.
This, however, may not be reflective of how the public feels, in general. When asked about their feelings about public religious displays, most Americans offer a neutral to positive response. According to a Dec. 1-6 Saint Leo University poll of 1,002 respondents, 73 percent said that nativity scenes should be allowed on public property, compared to the 11 percent that said no.
There are those, though, who feel that — in the example above — it is the 11 percent who matter, as they represent the population whose ideologies and personal beliefs are being oppressed by the free religious expression of others.
“What we know is when the government gets involved with religion, two things happen. Individuals suffer, because individuals who disagree about matters of faith do not have to have to merely contend with their minister, their priest, their rabbi, their mullah, but rather have to contend with the government,” said Paul Finkelman, a professor of law and public policy at Albany Law School.
“The thing to understand is the role of government is very different than the role of religion in any society. The role of religion is to teach morality, to teach ethics, to have a model for how people ought to behave … Governments make compromises. The ultimate aspect that makes government work is compromise,” he said. “The art of compromise is the art of great politics.”