As an Atheist in the progressively stunted state of Arizona, I feel the sting of the most recent Supreme Court ruling. It’s a big deal and religious representatives will probably use the ruling to justify other violations of church state separation. For example, they’ll probably use it to justify Christian Christmas displays. In their zeal to embrace the rightward shift that this ruling represents, they may assume that Christianity deserves a preeminent place in our society. They’d be wrong.
The ruling doesn’t eliminate the fundamental requirement that all citizens be represented and treated equally. While the Supreme Court has now decided that the sectarian prayers are not unconstitutional, that still doesn’t mean that they are a good idea. Of course, they didn’t say that they’re a bad idea either. I’m saying that.
In this country, we need religious neutrality and equal treatment under the law. The American Atheists put up a monument on state land in Florida last year next to a monument of the Ten Commandments. I believe that that too was a bad idea but it was made necessary by Bradford County’s refusal to keep their courthouse lawn free of religious artifacts. The best idea would be to keep the church and state separate and remove the Ten Commandments monument. There are churches everywhere and the religious community would not miss one religious statue. Instead, they opened up the door for others to clutter their courthouse lawn with trinkets containing religious and anti-religious sentiments. Since the City Council of Tucson has not taken steps to remove the monuments to the Virgin Mary on “A” mountain, look for other monuments to spring up further cluttering our natural desert.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, spoke for the majority opinion on the ruling. He said people that felt excluded or disrespected by religious prayers should simply ignore them. I don’t find that compelling. Judges in this country normally wear simple black robes but if I came before one who was dressed as a Franciscan Monk and my opponent in the matter prominently wore a crucifix, I don’t think I could ignore the situation. As a non-believer, I couldn’t ignore the feeling that I may not receive a fair treatment in such a court.
Speaking of religious bias, let’s not forget that the five justices that just voted to allow Christian sectarian prayer at a government meeting are all Catholic.
Coupled with the assumption that Christianity deserves a “preeminent place” in our culture and government is the equally odious assumption that being religious is the natural or default state of a natural person, and that non-believers (and non-Christians) are exactly that: a negation of the presumed “natural order” of things. It’s an ugly, ugly strain of thought that runs through the vein of Christian Exceptionalism. This ruling has worrisome implications to the legal status and protections of atheists, humanists, secularists, and those who choose to follow the non-Jesusy religions.
I too see this as a “big deal” and there should be a concerted response from non-theists and theists who “get it,” including progressives and interfaith leadership. As a former longtime chaplain who practiced a wide-open inclusive style, it seems we need a coordinated approach that includes both believers and non. Otherwise, we let these activist sectarian justices ignorantly hammer chunks from the wall of separation and build more walls that divide the Union. We have lots of work to do!