The Establishment Clause and the Tyranny of the Minority
"Freedom From" vs. "Freedom To" and Religion: When Worlds Collide
It’s one of the most “egregious violations” they have "ever encountered" in a public school, according to Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Dan Barker.
The American Humanist Association fumed that it’s a “clear violation” of the law and the school districts and officials can be sued under federal law and, moreover, the people placing the monument may be “liable in their individual capacities.” So take that.
What could possibly cause such consternation in Danielsville, Georgia, population 560, tucked away just 18 miles northeast of Athens, Georgia, home of the University of Georgia? A photograph of a cross in urine? A painting of a desecrated Virgin Mary?
Why no, it’s none other than a monument donated and placed at the local high school’s new field house to inspire the football team and its patrons. To make matters worse, the team has appropriated the habit of touching it as they charge past it on to the field.
The highly offensive inspirational language, as might be suspected, comes from the Bible: Philippians 4:13 (“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me”) and Romans 8:31 (“If God be for us who can be against us?”).
It appears that the Wisconsin-based FFRF, which boasts a national membership of 21,500, four hundred of which are found in Georgia, was sicced on the local school board by a Madison County resident, one of the 400. It is unclear how the HHA, founded in 1941 with around 24,000 members, got on the trail but they did, and with a vengeance at that.
Could be that the FFRF is some sort of sub-group of the HHA (their membership numbers seem to coincide) and so there’s a lot of cross pollination. Who knows.
The odd thing about the story is that it does not appear that any of the football team members, their parents, or any of the team’s patrons complained. Just a lone “Madison County resident”. Interesting.
If the school board does not cover it up or move it, law suits are promised, benefiting only the lawyers. The litigation certainly will not benefit the team, coaches, parents or community.
Much has happened since the United States Supreme Court Engle v. Vitale decision in 1962, the decision that took prayer out of public schools, and little of it good. Prayers came out of the classroom, out of the competition arenas, out of graduation programs, manger scenes off of public squares, Ten Commandment displays out of courthouses, and more.
The Engle case and its progeny worked an injustice on a country under a Constitution written by intellectual giants who were either Christian or had a profound belief in God. For this to happen, the Supreme Court had to do an extreme makeover on the Establishment Clause, the rather simple and straightforward language in the Bill of Rights that proscribes Congress from putting one religion or creed over another: “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibit the full exercise thereof.”
The idea was an early form of “live and let live”. There would be no state church as there had been in England where those found not towing the line might well end up towing the end of a rope. There was no intention to remove religion from the public discourse.
Today, however, the Establishment Clause has been upended as those who wish to fully exercise their religion are actually barred by the state from doing so to accommodate those who seek a freedom from religion (whatever that is). And it is the paranoia of the latter that has led to a restriction of the exercise of religious beliefs, the very result the Establishment Clause sought to avoid.
And in a larger Constitutional perspective, it is just this kind of tyranny of the minority that our form of government, a democracy within a republic, also sought to avoid.
Tiny Danielsville itself is now the focal point of egregious acts of interference over a monument created and erected by non-public funds. The inscription neither puts nor forces any religion over another. The fact that it sits on public property does not change that fact. Touching it or reading it is clearly voluntary.
Can reading merely religiously oriented words in a public place constitute establishing a religion? Probably not. Can preventing someone from reading those same words constitute a restriction of the right to exercise a religious belief? Maybe so.
Maybe Danielsville, like Tom Petty, “won’t back down”. The country will be all the better for it.
© 2014 Gary M. Wisenbaker