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May 21, 2010

Struggles over state-sponsored religion persist

Cary Brunswick
STAFF WRITER

— Anthony Flew, the atheist British philoso- Apher who gave in to theism a few years before his recent death, could be having a Ablast listening to the spate of arguments of late concerning the separation of religion and state. Except that his end-of-life conversion didn’t include a leap to belief in an afterlife. Ah, let him have a chuckle anyway.



Fresh off their final defeat in the ``under God’’ case involving the Pledge of Allegiance, secularists have honed in on the National Day of Prayer scheduled for Thursday, May 6.



In the Pledge case, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed its decision in 2002 and ruled, 2-1, in March that the phrase ``under God’’ did not violate the Constitution’s dictum for separation of church and state.



In a strange commentary hinting at an ignorance of history, Judge Carlos Bea justified his majority vote by writing that ``the Pledge of Allegiance serves to unite our vast nation through the proud recitation of some of the ideals upon which our Republic was founded.’’ Perhaps Bea hadn’t heard that the words ``under God’’ were added to the Pledge by Congress in 1954 during the Cold War panic concerning the atheistic Soviet Union, and likely would not have been penciled in by the Founding Fathers who wrote the Constitution.



It was also during that period when Congress, embodying the same anticommunist hysteria, decided in 1952 to establish a national prayer day. Later, in 1988, it set the first Thursday in May as the official day for presidents to issue proclamations asking Americans to pray.



I don’t recall local political leaders being involved in prayer-day events, though they may have tried to stay under the radar. But state politicians, including the governor and numerous legislators, annually attend prayer-day breakfasts. Given the crises in Albany, apparently their prayers have not been answered.



It had to happen, so now a federal judge has ruled that the National Day of Prayer this year is unconstitutional, though the decision will not take effect until all appeals, including one by the Obama administration, are exhausted. Now we have advocates on both sides trying to lobby municipal leaders to honor the intent of the ruling and divorce themselves from prayers, or ignore the court ruling and promote and take part in prayer day.



Prayer enthusiasts insist the practice is non-denominational, whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, has become a tradition and should be permitted. On the other hand, atheists say that government constitutionally should not be involved in religion, however general the practice.



The fight will continue, no doubt, between those who want the ``freedom to’’ pray and the ones who want to be ``free from’’ prayer that is promoted or sanctioned by government, which the Constitution indeed forbids.



Another battle that will be in the trenches for a while involves the right of colleges to deny recognition to campus religion groups that do not allow gays or non-believers to join.



The Supreme Court appeared divided last week when arguments were heard in the case of the Christian Legal Society challenging the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, which had denied the society recognition as an official campus organization with school financing and benefits because it won’t permit gays or non-Christians to become members.



I hope the case helps make it clear that religious- based and other private organizations that want state or federal funding do not have the right to discriminate against people who do not hold their core beliefs. The high court is expected to rule later this year.



If you want government money, you cannot exclude on the basis of religion. That seems a logical extension of the First Amendment. And then there are the students at a Texas college who are demanding that their diplomas not be dated “in the year of Our Lord,” which is the long form for AD.



There continues to be a split between the academic and public communities over the use of the BC/BCE (Before Christ/Before the Christian or Common Era) and the AD/CE (Year of Our Lord/Christian or Common Era) date notations. An institution such as a college or university  certainly should be using the academicnotations when necessary, though in the case of a diploma the notations are redundant.



Likewise, any official government references to such dating should go with the academic usages to avoid being linked to a specific religion.



Though Trinity University has historic ties to the Presbyterian Church, officials are considering removing the phrase from all diplomas and not just from those of students who request it. A decision on the phrase is expected this month.



The cases above illustrate a desire not to keep a religion or religion in general out of public life, but only to maintain the separation of government from the ``establishment of religion,’’ as specified in the First Amendment. And it’s clear the struggle is far from ending.



CARY BRUNSWICK of Oneonta is a freelance writer and editor of oneontatoday.com. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net.