Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The One and Only Faith

It's good to see readers of this blog feeling free to leave comments about alleged public servant, and supposed educator, Frank Lay. Mr. Lay stands accused of criminal contempt of a federal court by using his position as principal of a public high school in Pace, Florida, to order a subordinate athletic director to deliver a prayer at a school event, when he assuredly knew it would violate a federal judge's order.

It's also good to see that one or two of yesterday's comments were slightly above the lizard-brain level so common at a certain daily Pensacola newspaper we could name. That doesn't make them any more coherent or convincing. But it does qualify them as reasonably civil expressions in an important public policy discourse.

For that much, we salute you. You know who you are. Heck, that's more than anyone can say for the Republican thugs and swastika-waving insurance industry lackeys who've been deliberately disrupting health care reform town meetings in congressional districts across the country.

The careful reader should realize by now that the criminal contempt charges against Mr. Lay and his athletic director, Robert Freeman, were not sought or filed against the defendants by the American Civil Liberties Union. Indeed, according to a news item in this week's issue of the Santa Rosa Gazette, the A.C.L.U. was asked to amend its complaint to add a criminal charge and declined to do so.

The criminal contempt charges were filed by a federal judge on her own motion under the authority of a federal statute that makes it a crime for any person to act in "Disobedience or resistance to its lawful writ, process, order, rule, decree, or command" of a federal court.

The issue no longer is one of school prayer. That matter was decided by Santa Rosa County's school district many months ago, when the school board -- wisely, in our opinion -- agreed to prohibit religious demonstrations, prayers, and the like in its public schools and at school events by its publicly-paid educational employees.

No, the criminal contempt issue which Lay is now facing is much more basic than that. Quite simply, it comes down to a question of respect for the law and the courts. Are we to remain a nation of laws? Or, as once was the case in medieval Europe, are some among us so privileged by their particular brand of religious beliefs that they are free to ignore the orders of any judge who announces a legal ruling -- or even merely approves a mutual settlement by all the parties, as happened in this case.

Rational people will see that the law granting a judge the power to bring criminal contempt charges is reasonable and necessary. Indeed, it lies at the very foundation of our constitutional democracy. If everyone were free to ignore or disobey a federal court order just because they disagreed with it, or found it inconvenient, we'd be up to our eyebrows in Dino-land Bible Parks.

One of the commentators asked a question. He probably meant it to be read aloud as an angry rhetorical question, complete with flecks of spittle spraying all over the computer monitor, but we'll pretend he's really interested in knowing the answer.

"How in the name of God," he writes, "does the supreme court or anyone else who can read intrepret [sic] a high school principal saying grace before a meal as being 'congress making a law.' The "supremes" have it wrong, just as they have many other decisions wrong."

There are two conventional ways to answer the question. One is to point out, as we just did, that it's irrelevant whether or not the judge acted properly when she approved the Santa Rosa School Board's voluntary agreement to an order forbidding religious proselytizing at school events. Mr. Lay and his confederate had no more legal right to disregard that court order than a sailor has to disregard the order of a Navy officer just because he may think the officer is mistaken or believes him to be a fool.

The other conventional answer is one which the national American Civil Liberties Union fairly and succinctly articulates on its public information web site. Read the whole thing if you really want a good answer. Here, we'll do the A.C.L.U. a minor disservice and rework the organization's main points to emphasize the historical explanation our commenter impliedly wants:

Free Exercise Clause

The "free exercise clause" of the First Amendment guarantees the individual the right to express and manifest one's religious (or non-religious) beliefs in private or public. That right is "fundamental and should not be subject to political process and majority votes. "

Mr. Lay, our commentators, churchly people of every imaginable denomination, Muslims, Hindus, Rastafarians, and even common frauds who think Adam and Eve rode herd over dinosaurs -- they all have that right. So, too, do those who are persuaded that all religions are bogus; or as the father of our Constitution, James Madison, once said, that religion is mere "bondage" that "shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise."

Establishment Clause

The "establishment clause," on the other hand, forbids government from "establishing" or promoting any religious belief. By "government" we mean not only some amorphous "Government" in far-off Washington, D.C. or some federal judge so poorly understood that even one of our commentators mistakes her for a male.

"Government" includes all of its leaders, powers, property holdings, activities, and and personnel -- from the highest executive in the land to the lowest wage earner on the government payroll. Essentially, what's included is anyone, any place, and any activity which is largely paid for with public funds and traditionally seen as integral to a governmental function.

So much for a synopsis of the A.C.L.U.'s helpful explanation. Now, to answer the rest of the question -- how did the "Congress shall make no law" language come to apply to a li'l ol' high school principal in Pace, Florida? That requires a little knowledge about our nation's rich history. We assume anyone dependent on Mr. Lay's educational skills must not have learned this yet.

Puritan Times

The reasons our Founding Fathers insisted on the "establishment clause" are deeply rooted in the American experience, stretching back centuries to the very founding of Plymouth Plantation. So, we speak, as we have before, of the first birthplace of the American colony government as well as the place where the "shot heard 'round the world" was fired.

The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony organized their towns as inseparable from their religious "congregation." Taxes were imposed on everyone as tithes. The Congregation's "elect" decided how to spend the money.

That worked out as long as everyone in town was a member of the "elect." But, almost immediately non-Puritans emigrated to America, too. From the outset they objected to paying taxes that supported building and maintenance of Congregational schools and meeting houses; hiring Congregational schoolmasters; teaching from Congregational texts; and running town market places where only Congregational officials could determine who was allowed to sell what and for how much.

Even the right of simple yeomen to let "hogges" run loose in the town was decided each year by majority vote at the town meeting -- at which only members of the "one and true" religion had a vote. Others had no rights at all.

Today "teabaggers" feel oppressed by taxes? Quakers were fined, their property confiscated, and they were hung from a tree on the Boston Common. Methodists were forbidden to have their own school, but were taxed to support the Congregationalist school just the same. Baptists were forbidden to have their own church, but they were required to pay taxes to support the Congregational meeting house and the Congregatiional school. Catholics were banished altogether; and when some slipped in, anyway, they were denied access to all the town's services, including the grammar school.

In the late eighteenth century, about the time of the Articles of Confederation, the Congregationalists themselves began to split into factions. One was still invested in orthodox Calvinism and predestination; the other was liberal and Arminian. Eventually, many of these latter would become Unitarians.

But wouldn't you know it? Whichever faction had the majority of votes at any given annual town meeting exercised its power to hire like-minded schoolmasters. They banned textbooks they considered too friendly to other religions. They even changed the location of the town's "grammar school" from one place to another to suit their fancy -- or their religious faction's preference.

During the process of state ratification of the U.S. Constitution, fear of the federal government "establishing" religion, just as the Puritans once had done so successfully for centuries, was so widespread that Madison, Jefferson, and others had to pledge to the states that they would enact a "Bill of Rights" which would "secure" the rights of individuals, including forbidding the establishment of any religion by the government.

Fourteenth Amendment

It is true that in 1833 the Supreme Court held in the famous case of Barron v. Baltimore that the Fifth Amendment (and, by extension, all of the Bill of Rights) did not apply to the states. State governments thereafter remained legally free to "establish" a religion, suppress speech, and deny equal protection and due process to any class of people they chose. Mostly, the southern states chose to deny those rights to millions of Black people.

A few states, also mostly in the South, chose to deny equal rights to certain religious sects. In Georgia, ministers of the Protestant denomination were by statute forbidden to run for any political office. In South Carolina, state law punished anyone who spoke out or wrote against certain laws supported by state officials. And, of course, throughout the South persons of a darker skin color were denied every personal freedom you can think of except the 'freedom' to be a slave.

In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified. In pertinent part it provides:
No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws. [emphasis added]
In time and in connection with a long line of cases decided by the Supreme Court in its incremental fashion, the language italicized above has come to be understood to incorporate all of the "fundamental liberties" contained in the Bill of Rights -- including the freedom of speech, press, religion, and the establishment clause.

Hence, to the commenter who asked, the answer is this: Thanks not to "God" but to Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and some 600,000 dead in the Civil War, "Congress shall make no law" was effectively transformed by the Fourteenth Amendment into 'No federal, state, or local government shall... abridge... ."

And that's a good thing. Without it, we might still be living under the "one and only truth" of the Puritans, or perhaps some new anti-Puritan sect-of-a-sect-of-a-sect. Then, one day the Pace High School principal, Frank Lay, might have awakened to find that his favorite church congregation had splintered -- they all do, of course, sooner or later. And, he might have been told he hadn't been praying in a way the new government school board found acceptable. So, off with his head!

Faith of Our Founding Fathers

The hard lessons of history have taught us as a people that religious convictions can divide people at least as easily as they may comfort them. The Founding Fathers were keenly aware of that truth, as revealed by the American experience as well as that of Europe and the ancient world.

In a world still run by avowedly religious governments, they embarked the infant United States on a new experiment: a totally religion-free government in a nation where individuals remained free to believe what they wanted. Their near descendants fought a Civil War which concluded with the adoption of three Constitutional amendments that extended that same experiment to all subordinate governments in the various states.

High school principal Mr. Frank Lay is an employee of one of those subordinate governments. Thanks to the Founding Fathers, he enjoys a constitutional right to believe anything he likes, religiously or otherwise. As a public employee paid with public funds, however, he isn't allowed to proselytize while on the job -- no more than the science teachers at Pace High would be allowed to teach students that Adam and Eve ate fresh dinosaur meat, even if his pastor told him it was so.

But principal Lay has known this since the day the Santa Rosa School Board lawsuit was settled and the court entered an order approving the agreement. So, it isn't Mr. Lay's religious freedoms that are being questioned. What is being questioned is whether he and Freeman willfully violated a federal court's order, and thereby attacked the integrity of our legal system.

At the heart of the experiment started by our Founding fathers was faith, to be sure. Faith in government run by law. They decreed that the Constitution would be the "supreme" law of the land, not the whims of a privileged elite -- be that elite a king, or "god's elect," the Puritans, or some high school principal who wants to use his lowly government position to promote his personal religious views.

Article 6 of the Constitution stipulates: "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding. "

The Constitution is the "one and only" faith we need to preserve.

More Pace High School Religious Instruction

Sept. 18: Late Editorial Update ("Homo Neanderthalensis")
Sept. 17: Lay, Freeman Beat the Rap with the 'I'm Stupid' Defense
Sept. 17: Pictures of a Pep Rally
Aug. 22: Stupid, Not Contemptuous
Aug. 4: Frank Lay's Criminal Contempt Order
May 31: Principal Lay Has a 'Come to Jesus' Moment
May 27: Laying Down the Puritan Law
May 15: Southern Hos-Pee-Tility


BNAO said...

OUCH! I knew that. Would you like to enlighten on the part about those powers not granted...... are granted to the states respectively or to the people.

Anonymous said...

I caught the link to this from Twitter and was at first afraid that this post was going to be from a religious fanatic telling everyone what religion to follow. I was going to just ignore it, but curiosity got the better of me and I read the post. I just had to see what another fellow from Pensacola had to say.

Very good sir! I enjoyed the read and not surprisingly, I find myself agreeing with you 100%!

panicbean said...

This is probably one of the best pieces I have ever read, anywhere, on religion, the courts, our constitution, and well... you covered it all.

My hat is tipped to you, Sir.

Most excellent!