Unconstitutional Judiciary Orders Destruction of Prayer
So U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux has decreed (PDF) that the 46-year-old, mildly Christian prayer banner at Cranston High School West be removed. Judging from his description of its installation, as an old paper banner practically painted into the wall, the ruling appears tantamount to a decree that the prayer be destroyed.
One could raise a parade of issues with Lagueux’s legal argument. For example, among the cases in precedence that he cites as especially relevant is one in which the Supreme Court stated that a newly minted ordinance to place the Ten Commandments in every classroom of a district couldn’t stand. The case in Cranston must, at the very least, be closer to the line; I’d argue that it pushes the line a bit in atheists’ favor.
Another example arises in Legueux’s explanation of why the student has standing to sue for the removal of the mural:
The plaintiff must have suffered 1) an injury in fact; 2) which is caused by the offending conduct; and 3) which is capable of being redressed by a favorable court
It is obvious to suggest that, because all of the adverse reaction resulted not from the banner itself but from the effort to extinguish it, removing the banner will not eliminate the conduct, but arguably exacerbate it. Admittedly, Legueux doesn’t rely on that portion of the three-part test, but rather, he simply assumes that standing exists. The cases that he cites in this portion of the ruling have mostly to do with the recitation of prayer. The most important question before him — whether an historically relevant display across which a student’s eye may come from time to time causes the same effect and requires the same remedy as more direct and forceful impositions of religion addressed in the past — he simply skips over. Legueux fills in this blank with his heavy reliance on public reaction to the student’s lawsuit but only thereby illustrates that it was not the presence of the banner that stands as the “offending conduct” creating “an injury in fact.”
More important than the legal details, though, is that the ruling starkly raises a few key points in the ongoing debate. First, it makes clear how, as with other manifestations of leftist activism, treatment of atheism has a built in thumb on the scale.
On one hand, atheism is treated as if it were a religious belief in its own right so as to gain standing; the plaintiff, in this case, is “an avowed atheist.” It undoubtedly is such, but the mindset with which the First Amendment is treated in the courts transforms atheism into the default religion of the state by affirming its central principle of negation. A Muslim might understandably “experience feelings of exclusion and ostracism,” as Lagueux says of the young atheist’s response to the prayer, by his school’s endorsement of Christian concepts of God, but an atheist might respond thus to a school’s broad suggestion that a deity exists and may be worth petitioning.
Just so, the Muslim might be made to feel included were his own vision of God included in school invocations, but only an atheist has beliefs that require that no others be invoked. One can observe this reality in municipalities that have striven for diversity in religious displays during the holiday season only to open the door to attacks on religion from atheist groups. Religious groups counterpoise each other by stating their own uplifting messages. God loves us thus. Life has meaning because.
“Freedom from religion” types don’t put up posters extolling the virtues of humanity or honoring a life affirming statement from some key figure in the history of human reason, but rather by issuing arrogant declarations that they can spot the myths that less enlightened people believe to be true. Applied to the prayer banner in Cranston, this expression of the atheistic faith becomes the de facto message of the government. Lagueux admits that the values that the banner espouses are “commendable,” but that “the reliance on God’s intervention as the way to achieve those goals is not consistent with a secular purpose.” That is only true if one begins with a framework for secularism that peremptorily excludes God and denies His ability to affect “worldly, as opposed to sacred” things, to take some language from the dictionary.
The “goal” of the prayer is to achieve such secular values as honesty, friendship, and a positive attitude. The view of secularism inserted into the law by judges like Lagueux is one in which the only means of achieving those ends that are acceptable in a public school are those adhering to the atheistic view that God’s assistance is not necessary. Imagine some extreme circumstance that threatens the lives of everybody in the school building. By the judiciary’s reasoning, the principal would be barred from leading the students in even the most ecumenical prayer, because it has transformed “separation” into a requirement that government entities cannot behave as if God exists or can have an effect in worldly matters.
If instilling kindness and helpfulness to students is a valid goal for a public institution, then it must be inconsistent with separation of church and state for the federal government to tell a local community that it cannot behave as if prayer is the only way — or even one of multiple ways — that students can acquire such traits.
Indeed, reading the ruling, one may wonder whether the judge’s action, itself, can pass the Lemon test that Marc quoted yesterday:
According to the Lemon v. Kurtzman analysis, a governmental practice, or legislative act, must satisfy three tests in order to survive an Establishment Clause challenge. It must: “(1) reflect a clearly secular purpose; (2) have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and (3) it must avoid excessive government entanglement with religion.”
The judge’s purpose may be the secular maintenance of the Establishment Clause, but his decree clearly inhibits a community from even a mild remembrance of its religious past while advancing the cause of atheism. Moreover, he and judges before him have indisputably mired the federal government in religious entanglement, not the least by insisting that no public entity, no matter how far removed from Congress, no matter how uniform the opinion of the local population actually served, can pretend that God exists.
As a matter of law, we have a Constitutional amendment in the Bill of Rights saying that “Congress [i.e., the federal government] shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Entirely through the plying of the judicial arts, this simple restriction has led to a federal judge telling a small community organization that it must remove, and thus destroy, an expression of mildly Christian religion that has hung inconspicuously for half a century. If that is not entanglement, I don’t know what would be.
The plaintiff suffered no harm from the presence of the banner (even Legueux called the “coercion” imposed by it “subtle indeed”), but from her own initiative not to build support, locally, to remove it, but to have the federal government step in and assert her religious beliefs as the default in the secular realm, even to the extent of excluding historically relevant artifacts within the school. It is not too great an extrapolation to see in this case the underlying reason for our national politics’ divisiveness. Local, democratic action is no longer the most effective means of addressing difference of opinion; influence over the federal government and especially the selection of judges is.
And judges are content — even to the point of celebrating the act’s courageousness — to place the government in stark opposition to the people of, by, and for whom it ostensibly exists.