Friday, November 16, 2007

State-sponsored vs. State-allowed Religion

Don't get me wrong here, I'm not a terribly religious person. Really that's irrelevant. Often times, I am annoyed by all faiths and their imposition into government and even just life in general. At times like that, I find myself often siding with athiests in fights against the encroachment of other people's religious beliefs. However, sometimes the athiests choose to shoot themselves in the foot.

Such is the case in Utah right now where there is a battle between a small group of atheists and the state patrol. In short, the Utah Highway Patrol has put up 13 crosses to honor officers that have died in the line of duty. The atheists claim that this is a violation because of the implication that the Utah Highway Patrol is endorsing Christianity by using the cross as the symbol.

One question that I didn't see asked or answered in the article, however, was whether or not the fallen troopers were Christian or not. That is an important issue because if falls at the crux [wince] of the matter. If a trooper was Jewish, Muslim, Pagan, Hindu, etc. and the State Patrol insisted on using the cross, then that is forcing a religious belief on someone. However, if the families chose the cross (and I believe the families were involved in this process), and the State Patrol allowed the cross, then that is a different story.

The following is a quote from Brian Barnard , a lawyer representing American Atheists.

"The use of those crosses constitutes and endorses Christianity. Although it's an acknowledgement of the death of these troopers, it is also an endorsement of Christianity." [emphasis mine]

If we change the one word endorses (twice) in the prior quote, the whole situation is moot. That is, the government isn't endorsing a religion... but allowing one. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
Notice that there is no law involved in our cross issue. There is no prohibition of exercising a religion. All that is happening is that there is an allowance being made for the families to have a memorial that is religion-specific to the officers involved.

The interesting flip-side of this issue is, if the State Patrol were to have said "no, you aren't allowed to use crosses despite your religious beliefs," (exactly what the atheists would hope to have happen) then they would have been "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion. And that would have been un-Constitutional.

The moral? Be careful what you wish for... you might just get it.

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