Friday, October 31, 2008

Nativity Scene Under Fire in Ohio

[Warning: this is an opinion piece! I'm venting a bit, so you won't find a lot of historic quotes to substantiate what I am saying. But you can read the rest of this blog to get some useful background.]

Malabar Farm State Park in Ohio has a tradition of displaying a Nativity scene each year. As with many locations around the country, this one is being pressured by the Freedom from Religion Foundation (from Madison, WI) to discontinue the practice. There article can be found on the Mansfield News Journal site.

This case is not unusual, and that's part of my problem with it. First, once again if we read the article about the case we see that the Nativity scene is a problem because of "separation of church and state." That phrase is not part of our Constitution, and it's vague enough that it is not terribly instructive. What is part of the Constitution (First Amendment) is "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." If you read the writings of our Founding Fathers, either official or unofficial, you see they used words very well. The first word, the one that defines the scope of the amendment, is "Congress." The fifth word tells us what Congress may not do: make a law respecting an establishment of religion. They did not choose to say, "No government entity shall in any way recognize any religion." In fact, earlier in the Constitution they declared that the number of days a President's has to sign a bill will not count Sundays. In that way they set into the framework the ability of Christians (or anyone else who sets aside Sunday as a holy day) to not have to work on that day. And there are countless examples quoted in this forum to show that the Founders did recognize and encourage religious activity, even to the extent of allowing Christian worship services in the U.S. Capitol buildings. It is inconceivable that the Founders would have forced a Nativity scene to be taken down from any location. But by relying on one's interpretation of the words "separation of church and state," almost anything could be justified.

The other issue is the argument many people make that it is unfair to let Christian symbols be scene on public property because that makes the Christian religion kind of a "bully" against other smaller religion. In other words, just because Christianity was an important part of our Founding, and just because it has been the strongest religious presence throughout our history, does not mean it should be predominant in displays. It's the argument that might doesn't make right. But the First Amendment does not guarantee a group won't "feel" left out. It doesn't guarantee that a group won't feel offended. It DOES guarantee that the government won't make a law enforcing a national religion or compelling you to worship in a way you do not want.

So what is the reaction when someone who is arguably in the minority wants to block a Nativity scene from being displayed? An outside group that is more powerful is often brought in to the fight. If my local City Hall wants to display a Nativity scene, they don't have the resources to fight against opposition from a group like the Freedom from Religion Foundation, so that group will win because of its power. So then we could try to bring in our own large group, like the Rutherford Institute, to fight it out with the other large group. In the end, the side that wins the fight may be the one who can muster the most power on their side. That's just a fact of life in many legal struggles, but it seems like such a waste of resources when the fight is over words like "separation of church and state." If you want to fight over something Constitutional, why do we almost never see the words of the Constitution in press releases (or sometimes even in decisions)? Why don't we look at the actions of the Founders to learn how they thought? Or if a group feels the Constitution is out of date, then why not fight to change it via the provided amendment process rather than via courts that are sympathetic to your side? The amendment process is a high wall, but that is a good thing! It is not meant to sway with the wind. The various court actions on cases like this could fairly be described as swaying with the wind.

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