Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Who Put That Summum in My Backyard?

Christians are feeling harassed nowadays. At every turn they are facing persecution, denial, and even hostility. Their religion is on the brink of irrelevance, and the historical role it has played in American history is being ignored. So say the loudest among the 77% of the nation that self-identify as Christians. Frankly, this is a refrain I'm losing patience with. For someone with roots within the religion, but a lifestyle in which that heritage takes a background role, the constant whining is starting to grate. The reality is that it's difficult to go an entire day without running into a series of "God's messages"- along the road, through traditional media, and even in the workplace. But for some adherents, too much will never be enough.

One more in a string of controversies over this issue is playing itself out in Pleasant Grove City, Utah, and in the US Supreme Court. Within that small community lies Rose Garden Park, which has been home to a sculpture featuring the Ten Commandments since 1971. In 2003 a group of believers from the Summum religion donated a statue containing "The Seven Aphorisms" (which contain the tenets of their faith) to Pleasant Grove with the intention of having it displayed alongside the other works at the park. Unfortunately for the faithful, the mayor and the other town fathers rejected the gift. But when the Summum group brought the matter to the courts, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in its favor.

At issue was the characterization of private speech in the public sphere. If the Judeo-Christian message of proscription is private, then those who decided to display it in Pleasant Grove, and to exclude "The Seven Aphorisms" of Summum, have violated the intent of our Free Speech guarantees. The Appeals Court judged the action to be content-based discrimination. Yet a dissenting judge in that decision claimed that the Ten Commandments sculpture represented "government speech" because the monuments in the park were subject to city control. Somehow the contestants in this case both cite Johanns v. Livestock Marketing Association, wherein American beef producers sued to defy a congressionally-mandated marketing campaign.

It seems odd to me that the basis of argument in this case is "free speech" rather than "freedom of religion". I have no qualms about saying that the action of the Pleasant Grove municipal leaders has violated the Establishment Clause. If this is (as they contend) "government speech", then they should not be allowed to favor the doctrines of one religion, while discounting those of another, more obscure faith. That seems obvious to me, and in fact this doctrinaire approach was something that our "founding fathers" were trying to escape when they distinguished us from European society. In the years since our promising start, Europe has evolved out of its reliance on religious law, and we have been "Left Behind", so to speak.

There's an inherent danger in prying open our government to the influences of any established religion. Even among Christian sects there are plenty of disparities that distinguish one from another. And there are still millions of citizens who subscribe to other faiths, or forego them altogether. Legal authority should be kept separate from spiritual authority. Objections that Christianity is indelibly connected to our history are beside the point- slavery, genocide, sexism, and exploitation are also tied to our past. If you open the door to one set of faith-based ideas in the public sphere, you must welcome (and even seek out) the balance of alternate views. It simply doesn't matter how odd you find them, or how much you disagree.

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