Thursday, December 02, 2004

Peeing on the First Amendment

So, on my way to work this morning, while waiting in line for the toll booth at the Massachusetts Turnpike, I see a nativity scene on the lawn in front of the Turnpike administration building. Not a big or gaudy one, just three plastic figures representing Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus in his cradle.

I got angry.

My mother, who has become a crazy conservative and recently described herself as "somewhere to the right of Atilla the Hun," once said to me when I mentioned these sorts of displays angering me, "Why do you care if a town puts up a nativity scene in front of the city hall? Why shouldn't Christians be able to express their beliefs?"

Which misses the point entirely. Christians, as well as Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, Neo-pagans, and atheists are all free to express their beliefs in this country. As individuals. But, when individuals are acting as agents of the government, the First Amendment forbids them to use the power of government to promote any religion or religions.

The mayor of a town is free to put up a nativity display in his yard, as are all Christians, and to express his or her beliefs in public as an individual and in church or any other non-government place. But, when the mayor decides to put a nativity scene up in front of the town hall, using taxpayer funds, he is now using the power and money of the government to promote his own religion. Such displays make the unsubtle statement that Christianity is the town's religion and that other religions have no place, or a lesser place, there. It says that the government is for Christians by Christians and that those of other faiths or no faith are second-class citizens. It says that other faiths or lack of faith are inferior to Christian faith. That they are not worthy of representation while Christianity is.

Of course, one counter argument is that some towns put up a menorah or somesuch and also, perhaps, something to appease Muslims. But that's just as wrong. By doing so, the government is simply promoting the three monotheistic religions of Abraham at the expense of all other faiths or no faith. Including a couple extra faiths in the exclusive club of faiths endorsed by the government does make the discrimination against other faiths any less improper.

The only way to allow such displays on public property and follow the First Amendment, in my view, would be to set aside a space for those of any and all religions to put up displays as they see fit. The government should not provide any of them unless it is going to provide all of them.

Of course, that will never happen. No town would want to to give up its self-granted "right" to discriminate against certain religions. Government officials would never willingly give up the right to judge which displays are "proper" and which religions are legitimate and therefore should be allowed to display. Few town officials would willingly allow displays by religions such as Wicca or Satanism, or displays by those who lack faith.

Therein lies the rub. The point of the religious establishment clause of the First Amendment is to prevent the government from using its power to promote one religion over another, to determine what religions are legitimate or not, and determine what religious displays are appropriate or not.

The fact that towns do not set up what I will call 'religious display zones' and instead put a nativity scene in front of the town hall demonstrates the inherent lie perpetrated by government officials and Christians when they talk about how disallowing nativity scenes on public property infringes on the "freedom to express one's religious beliefs." Because they don't really care one whit about freedom of religion. They simply want to use the power of government to promote their own religious beliefs. They believe in freedom of religion as long as the religion in question is Christianity, or, if absolutely necessary, one of Christianity's monotheistic cousins. Only when pressed do nativity-supporting government officials and Christians make concessions to religious plurality and the First Amendment and allow Jewish or Islamic displays. And it is a grudging concession. Promoting Christianity is the point and the rights of those of other faiths or no faith are unimportant.

That's why these displays anger me. They inherently symbolize the arrogance of Christians and their belief that only they should be able to use public property and funds to promote their religion. They denigrate the beliefs of those of other faiths and those without faith. They tell Christians and non-Christians alike that Christianity is the official religion of the government to the exclusion of all others. They are shows of intolerance hidden in plain sight.

But I'm not just sitting here making theoretical assertions. I am planning to conduct an empirical experiment to test my theory. I plan to call the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority this afternoon and tell them that, in the interests of equal representation, I wish to put up a display in support of the religion of Mithraism, a faith contemporary to Christianity. I will ask to put up a banner reading: "December 25th was Mithras' birthday before it was Jesus'. Mithras is the reason for the season!" Which, technically, isn't even a religious statement but simply a historical one. No one knows when Jesus was born and neither did the early Christians. So, wanting a holiday to celebrate the birth of their divinely-conceived, resurrected deity, they simply appropriated the existing holiday of another divinely-conceived, resurrected deity. This is historical fact and not one open to much debate. What do you suppose the chances are that the Turnpike Authority will agree?

I will let you know what happens.


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