Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Iowa Town Renames Good Friday to Spring Holiday

In Davenport, Iowa, a town of about 100,000 citizens along the Mississippi River, a controversy has arisen over Good Friday. That 2000-year-old holiday has appeared on the city calendar in the past.

Based on a recommendation by the Davenport Civil Rights Commission, the city decided that Good Friday should be changed to a more generic name, and they chose Spring Holiday. The City Administrator made the change without consulting the city council. However, a vote of the whole council is required for such a change in policy, so this broke the rules.

Why did the Commission make the recommendation? They say it is because our Constitution requires "separation of church and state." This, of course, is a broad metaphor not found in the Constitution and is often mis-used, which I believe it was in this case.

Having Good Friday on the calendar is simply a recognition of centuries of traditions and is even written in to the union contracts for the city. It does not establish an official religion nor does it compel citizens to worship in a particular way. The fact is that this day off would not exist were it not for Good Friday. It varies from year to year based on where Good Friday falls. Renaming it as a "cover" seems a little disingenuous.

The town council has decided to restore the original name, partly because of a tremendous uproar from the citizens.

Read the story here:

Iowa Town Renames Good Friday to 'Spring Holiday'

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Charter of Virginia, 1606: Mission Is to Propagate Christian Religion

Texas recently had to undergo a long debate about including more of the religious history of our country in the history books their public schools would use. To some extent I suspect this was "push back" because many of our textbooks are leaving out some of that very important aspect of our founding and history. No matter what you think about "separation of church and state" or public prayer or influence of religious leaders in politics, surely there is no harm in teaching our children about the nature of our founding. Consider the following, which is part of the founding document of one of our earliest colonies:

The First Charter of Virginia; April 10, 1606

"We, greatly commending, and graciously accepting of, their Desires for the Furtherance of so noble a Work, which may, by the Providence of Almighty God, hereafter tend to the Glory of his Divine Majesty, in propagating of Christian Religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God, and may in time bring the Infidels and Savages, living in those parts, to human Civility, and to a settled and quiet Government: DO, by these our Letters Patents, graciously accept of, and agree to, their humble and well-intended Desires..."

Read the entire document on the Yale Law site:

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Thomas Jefferson: The True Meaning of the First Amendment

Thomas Jefferson is often quoted today when we hear "separation of church and state," a phrase from a private letter he wrote while President of the U.S.  Various activist groups have used that phrase to indicate that Jefferson would not approve of any government recognition of religion, as have the courts in recent years. But what did Jefferson mean by that phrase? His own practice was to use the phrase "freedom of religion" when discussing the First Amendment. And it seems clear to me that his main concern was about some kind of official government control over religion, or some limit on free expression of religion. Consider these words of Jefferson:

"I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment or free exercise of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the United States. Certainly, no power to prescribe any religious exercise or to assume authority in religious discipline has been delegated to the General Government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority." --Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Miller, 1808. ME 11:428

That quote and many others can be found within the University of Virginia's collection of Jefferson papers:

Friday, March 26, 2010

Maryland's Indian River School District Allowed to Open Meetings With Prayer

The Indian River (Delaware) School Board has been one of several organizations in our country that have been taken to court (or labor under the threat of a suit) for opening meetings with a prayer. In the case of the Indian River board, a federal judge has said that may keep opening with prayer - it is Constitutional.

The issue is not usually debated along the lines of whether there can be prayer. It gets down to the content of the prayer. We usually concentrate on whether the Founders would have wanted prayer (and it's easy enough to demonstrate that they had no problem with prayer). But let's ask a different question. WHO would the Founders have wanted to determine what the prayer should be, the Federal government (via the courts) or the members of the board? That's a pretty easy question to answer if you know their history.

Read about the Indian River case below:

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Harry Truman: Basis of Our Laws Is The Ten Commandments

While some politicians and history books are resistant to saying anything about our country's Christian roots, such shyness is a relatively new phenomenon. Several of our Founders have said that our laws are based on the Ten Commandments of God, and others have said it is important to our nation's success that we follow those Commandments.

Even in 1950 at an Attorney General's Conference, President Harry Truman said,

"The fundamental basis of this nation's laws was given to Moses on the Mount. The fundamental basis of our Bill of Rights comes from the teachings we get from Exodus and St. Matthew, from Isaiah and St. Paul. I don't think we emphasize that enough these days. If we don't have a proper fundamental moral background, we will finally end up with a totalitarian government which does not believe in rights for anyone except the State."

From the book Three Secular Reasons Why America Should Be Under God, by William J. Federer

Monday, March 22, 2010

Woodrow Wilson: America Is a Christian Nation

The phrase "Christian nation" can mean different things, depending on the context. Readers of this blog know that I often say our nation has Christian roots, or perhaps Judeo-Christian roots. Readers also know that I say we were not founded with an official religion, Christian or otherwise. There are Supreme Court cases saying we are a Christian nation. There are founders who have said it. Presidents have said it. I'm sure none of those statement meant to say that our citizens are compelled to worship as Christians, much less compelled to worship as any particular Christian denomination.

Today many shun the phrase "Christian nation" and may even claim we don't have Christian roots. But when Woodrow Wilson was campaigning in 1917 he made a statement about the U.S. being a Christian nation. But he didn't stop there; he want on the amplify that statement and explain at least part of his meaning:

"A nation which does not remember what it was yesterday, does not know what it is today, nor what it is trying to do. We are trying to do a futile thing if we do not know where we came from or what we have been about.... America was born a Christian nation. America was born to exemplify that devotion to the tenets of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture."

(The above quote is found in several articles, including this one: "Is America a Christian Nation?" by Carl Pearlston)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Gouverneur Morris: Religion Is Important to Civil Society

Gouverneur Morris was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and it considered an important Founder of the United States. When Gouverneur Morris was elected as the first president of the New York Historical Society. His inaugural address included the following:

"The reflection and experience of many years have led me to consider the holy writings not only as most authentic and instructive in themselves, but as the clue to all other history. They tell us what man is, and they alone tell us what he is. All of private and public life is there displayed"
"There must be religion. When that ligament is torn, society is disjointed, and its members perish."

And in suggesting wording for the French constitution, he suggested:

"Religion is the solid basis of good morals; therefore education should teach the precepts of religion and the duties of man towards God..."

As found in the book Christian life and character of the civil institutions of the United States, by Benjamin Franklin Morris, pages 138-9.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Four Chaplains Day

We have many holidays in the United States. One of our most "famous" holidays, which is Christian and has been adopted even by non-Christian countries, is Christmas. But we have other holidays with a religious background. Thanksgiving, as had been shown on this blog, has a religious background. (This is despite the fact that many figures today portray our country as one with no significant religious background/heritage.)

But you may not be aware that we also have a holiday dedicated to men of the cloth, Four Chaplains Day. February 3 is the day we celebrate the heroic actions of four chaplains during World War II. On February 3, 1943, the ship on which they served, Dorchester, was hit by an enemy torpedo and began to sink. There were not enough life vests for the entire compliment of crew and troops aboard, so all four chaplains gave up their vests to others on the ship. The four died in the icy waters.

We have issued a stamp honoring them. We also have several monuments honoring them:

  • The Chapel of the Four Chaplains at Temple University, dedicated by President Harry S. Truman.
  • Immortal Chaplains Memorial Sanctuary on the Queen Mary, in Long Beach, California
  • The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. has a stained glass window depicting the men, and showing a sinking ship and a symbolic life vest in the waters before them (shown above).
  • And many others...

To learn more, see the Wikipedia post:


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Good Article on "Separation of Church and State"

Most of the point of my blog is to correct the misconception that many seem to have about the intent of our First Amendment's Religion Clause(s). The actual words of the amendment have been replaced in conversation AND in court decisions with a metaphor Thomas Jefferson once used: "separation of church and state." And in using that metaphor, they ignore the many statements Jefferson made about the First Amendment when he referred to it creation of "freedom of religion."

Here is a good article that discusses the point in some detail, including covering the British background more than I have:

Separation of Church and State: What It Really Means

Sunday, March 14, 2010

What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?

New Bedford, Massachusetts - In the 1800's this was an important whaling port, and whaling was a thriving industry. It was important to many of our coastal communities.

However, all was not without conflict. It seems that the town was quite concerned about behavior of the whalers while they were in port. "Whale men sought out gambling dens, brothels, saloons, and dance halls." It was thought by the citizens that such behaviors were detrimental to the good of the community.

So how does a community handle this? What would we do today? It's a tough problem, to be sure. But suppose that in today's society the town leaders decided to arrange for church services and then later built a church? Is it hard to imagine the ACLU or similar organizations jumping into the situation with a lawsuit on the basis of "separation of church and state"? But New Bedford, the town leaders did exactly what I described. The result was a church that is today one of the National Park Service's Historic Parks: The Seamen's Bethel.

Here is part of that story according to the NPS website:

As the whaling industry grew, more and more men were needed to man the many whaleships leaving the port. At various times, the number of seamen in Bedford Village ranged from 5,000 to 10,000 — nearly equaling the population of the village! The lives of these whale men were quite a contrast to those of the local citizens. Whale men sought out gambling dens, brothels, saloons, and dance halls — establishments which, as the leading citizens observed, were “detrimental to the dignity and good order of our community.” In addition, Quaker whaling merchants were concerned that the whale men spent the wages of a multi-year voyage in just a few days on such pursuits, leaving them broke and without means of support.

What to do? In 1830, the leading citizens of the town met to discuss the situation and as a result of that meeting the New Bedford Port Society for the Moral Improvement of Seamen was organized. They immediately offered church services to whale men before they shipped out on whaling voyages. Services were held either down at the waterfront or in the Town Hall. The long-term impracticality of waterfront services and the difficulty of constantly arranging to use the Town Hall soon led the Port Society to conclude that they needed their own building. In 1832, the Seamen’s Bethel was dedicated as a nondenominational church and serves today in that capacity.

Read more here:

Friday, March 12, 2010

OT: Cutting Funds from the U.S. Coast Guard

This is off topic in the sense that it does not relate to the First Amendment. However, it does relate to the U.S. Constitution and to the 10th Amendment.

According to this article the United States Coast Guard is preparing for a cut in funding of $100 million. If we do the math, that's about 1/3 the amount offered (see "bribe") to one Louisiana politician for one "yes" vote on a health care bill. If the administration were serious about cutting spending overall, one could accept taking away $100 mil from a service that offers in return for its duty many millions of dollars of saved property and countless value in saved lives every year. But it seems like our government has its own "Toyota gas pedal" when it comes to spending on all manner of items not authorized by our Constitution (you politicians remember that document; it's the one you swore to support and defend). Yet they will fight tooth and nail over spending on the few things our Constitution DOES authorize.

The Coast Guard has roots going back to 1790, when the Constitution's writers were involved in such decisions. One has to assume that when the First Congress authorized funds for the service, it believed the service to be Constitutional. What do you suppose the founders would think of the spending choices we make today?

We have all seen waste in spending by various federal agencies, and I am sure there is some in the Coast Guard as well. However, I have been "aware" of the Coast Guard for several decades and have not seen any federal agency that does as good a job of managing its money AND returning value to the tax payers. Consider the following, which is the 2008 compilation from the Coast Guard Commandant's report:

On an average day the U.S. Coast Guard will:

  • Save 15 lives
  • Assist 117 people in distress
  • Conduct 90 search and rescue cases
  • Protect $2.8 million in property
  • Enforce 129 security zones
  • Interdict and rescue 15 illegal migrants at sea
  • Board 4 high interest vessels
  • Board 192 vessels of law enforcement interest
  • Board 122 large vessels for port safety checks
  • Seize 71 pounds of marijuana and 662 pounds of cocaine with a street value of $21.1 million
  • Conduct 317 vessel safety checks and teach 63 boating safety courses
  • Conduct 19 commercial fishing vessel safety exams
  • Respond to 11 oil and hazardous chemical spills
  • Process 280 mariner licenses and documents
  • Service 140 aids to navigation
  • Monitor the transit of 2,557 commercial ships through U.S. ports
  • Investigate 20 vessel casualties involving collisions, allisions and groundings
I'll take that return on my investment!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Jefferson: Religion Confirms Our Government's Principles

President Thomas Jefferson is often quoted today, but his now-famous phrase about "separation of church and state" seems to have overwhelmed many of his other statements. Certainly Jefferson would be surprised to lean how popular that phrase, taken from a single letter he wrote, has become today. He would also be shocked to see the courts use his words to limit freedom of religious expression.

But Jefferson did not intend to limit the way people express religion, as long as such expression did not break our civic laws. He even trumpeted the value of religion to a civil society. Here is one of his statements on that subject:

"Religion, as well as reason, confirms the soundness of those principles on which our government has been founded and its rights asserted." --Thomas Jefferson to P. H. Wendover, 1815. ME 14:283

Read more of Jefferson's thoughts here:

Monday, March 8, 2010

Locality Raises Half Million Dollars to Fight ACLU for Religious Rights

In a previous post I described how Forsyth County in North Carolina was prohibited by a judge from continuing their tradition of opening meetings with prayer. The ACLU brought the suit, claiming (probably correctly) that most of the prayers had a Christian theme.

So in this case, a judge was not saying that prayers were unconstitutional, but that the content of these prayers made them unconstitutional. It's hard to imagine, knowing our history, that the Founders would have written a constitution that somehow enabled judges to effectively censor a prayer because of its content. Even Thomas Jefferson, from whom we get the often quoted phrase "separation of church and state," talked much, much more about "freedom of religion" than "separation." (Jefferson also was on record as fearful that the courts would gradually take on too much power. Until 1947 the courts did not object to such prayers, but after that they gradually became more active.)

Any country facing such a suit could easily be afraid that fighting it might lead to a costly legal battle. In this case, the country is going to fight the suit. Local concerned citizens raised a half million dollars to fight this decision on appeal. It's too bad that locals had to commit that much money for this cause, but they believe they are fighting for rights they are given by the U.S. Constitution.

Read more here:

Ruling against prayer appealed

Saturday, March 6, 2010

North Carolina: Giving a Bible Is a Hate Crime?

In North Carolina, a Wake County middle-school teacher is in the middle of a controversy because of conflict between her and her students. The coverage of the story seems to join the events a bit on the late side, so it is hard to tell exactly what led up to this.

If seems the teacher is Muslim and has taken offense at some Christian t-shirts some students have worn. She was particularly offended when someone left a Bible on her desk. She called it a "hate crime." I could write a very long post just on the misuse of strong terms such as "hate crime" being applied to acts like this. Was it a pointed act? Yes, I suspect leaving the Bible was intended as a message.

But one has to wonder what exactly the students were responding to. Middle school students are not known for evangelizing to teachers. However, middle- and high-school students ARE known for pushing back when they feel pushed. The class had previously covered a unit on evolution. This teacher is said to have sent students to the office for asking about the role of God in creation.

The movie "The Sound of Music" has become an icon in this country and is shown at least once a year, usually around the Thanksgiving/Christmas holidays. There is a scene where the Trapp children leave a pine cone on Maria's chair, which she unknowingly sits on. Was that a hate crime?

If a teacher is know to be especially crabby with students, that teacher may be the target of pranks, or at least acts that were called "pranks" when I was growing up. Are those now to be called "hate crimes?"

For that matter, if a teacher sends a student to the office for asking about God's role in creation, could the teacher be accused of a hate crime?

Read the story here:

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Jefferson on Religion's Importance to Good Government

President Thomas Jefferson is one of our most famous Founders. He has a gift for crafting documents and contributed enormously to beauty of our Declaration of Independence. As with anyone who wrote a lot, his quotes can sometimes be used in ways he did not intend. The most frequent example I can think of is his phrase "separation of church and state." Some would have us believe via those words that Jefferson did want religion to come anywhere near government. Yet that was not his own practice.

Perhaps the best way to better understand Jefferson is to look at more of his quotes about the relationship between religion and government. Many such are already posted on this blog and here is one more example. Jefferson used the "separation" phrase in a particular way. He meant to assure the reader that government would not create a national religion and force others to follow it; he more frequently uses the theme "freedom of religion." Consider the following quote, found within the University of Virginia's Jefferson collection (Jefferson founded the U. of VA):

"Among the most inestimable of our blessings, also, is that... of liberty to worship our Creator in the way we think most agreeable to His will; a liberty deemed in other countries incompatible with good government and yet proved by our experience to be its best support." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to John Thomas et al., 1807. ME 16:291 

Read more here:

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Court Says How We Can Pray

In North Carolina, the Forsyth County Commission has a tradition of opening meetings with a prayer. Often the prayer is Christian, although no specific words are specified. It depends on who is doing the praying.

But a court said that are violating the First Amendment when they do this. To remind you, the Amendment addresses religion in the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;"

That's it. That's all it says. So for the judge to protest, he was relying on the first half of that phrase (Establishment Clause). The article about this conflict points out that there is no written-out prayer specified. The person doing the praying is the one responsible for the words. How can that be equated with creating a law that establishes a particular religion? It can't, but courts have said that government may not even endorse, or appear to endorse, a particular religion. (I must have missed that part in the quote above.)

And what about the free exercise clause? If you invite someone to pray, which apparently is allowed by the judge, is it not limiting their free exercise (or free speech, another part of the First Amendment) to specify what they can and can not say? Did our founders intend that courts will tell anyone how to pray? One can not read the founders' words and think that.

Read more here:

Forsyth County commissioner prayer ruled unconstitutional; Buncombe next?