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The true American Way: a modest proposal


The U.S. Supreme Court has taken up another First Amendment case dealing with government and religion, and no matter what their ruling, somebody’s oxen will be gored.

Such is the case with the prickly subject of the twin prongs of the First Amendment. The first horn prevents government from establishing a religion, the second keeps the government from prohibiting anyone from practicing any religion they choose. At first blush, this case appears to create the typical conflict between establishment and free exercise rights.

In the Town of Greece v. Galloway, justices are being asked to choose between 200 years of history and a complaint that the town of Greece, a Rochester suburb, has allowed it’s opening prayers to become increasingly sectarian and noninclusive. And in this case, perhaps the conflict between the establishment clause and the free practice clause does not exist.

The problems with governmental invocations, especially those such as are at question in Greece, are that they give a tacit approval to one religion over another, and they inhibit the free practice of religion — which, of course, includes not practicing religion at all — by foreclosing multiple visions of the God or supreme being or the lack thereof in which we believe.

Inherently, atheists are excluded from these invocations because they choose not to believe there IS a supreme being. When a town, village or county legislator invokes God almighty, as is common in the three county legislatures and any number of towns and villages in the north country, this is exclusionary.

And when a white-bread, rural, mainstream public official invokes the almighty God, you can be pretty sure he or she isn’t talking about any but the Christian god. That is not the god of Jews or Buddhists or Muslims or any number of other religions. By making a plea to what can only be interpreted as a Christian god, Christianity becomes the approved religion of that public body.

Thus, in a subtle but unmistakable way, that public body is establishing Christianity as an “official” religion. Which the First Amendment prohibits.

Equally, by placing a single sect, a sole religious belief, ahead of all others, the practice of other religions is inhibited. The message, clear as if it were spelled out at the beginning of each meeting at the top of the agenda, is “Here is your Christian public body. Follow us.”

They don’t have to listen, you may say. Or this is splitting of hairs, nobody MEANS it that way. Or we believe in God and we have a right to say so.

All of that is true, and all of that misses the point. Religion, like paying the bills and personal grooming, is best practiced behind closed doors. We are supposed to be free from religious coercion; the First Amendment guarantees that. Every time a town supervisor or county legislator or village mayor gets up and publicly invokes his or her own version of god, all other versions of god take a back seat.

Far better to have a moment of silence to let everyone reflect on the business at hand, let everyone speak to or remain silent before their own god. That, truly, should be the American Way.

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