Thursday, March 11, 2010

Something I Learned in Constitutional Law Class

When I was taking Constitutional Law at Notre Dame, more than twenty years ago, one of the professors posed a hypothetical to the class. He asked of one student, I think it was Chip Lewis, “If Christian groups should be allowed to place a cross on the grounds of the state capitol building.” Chip replied, “Sure.” The professor then asked, “How about a menorah?” Chip replied, “Sure.” (In the circles in which I move, anti-Semitism is completely beyond the pale.) The professor continued, “How about a Ramadan display?” Silence. The professor raised a troubling question. We certainly cannot allow a policy on religious displays on public property to be resolved by a popular vote. I’ll note in passing that, while Protestants and Catholics in America might disagree on any number of issues, the sort of sectarian conflict that plagued Europe for centuries and still remains a source of terrible conflict in Ireland for most of the previous century is simply unheard of in America. So the policy that U.S. federal judges have settled upon is simple and, I believe, correct. Either no religious displays are allowed at all, or any displays by any faith are allowed. A few years ago, an atheist group got quite a few people seriously riled by posting a display in a statehouse and a lot of people got upset. I am happy to report that no one got hurt or arrested. My collaborator constantly bemoans the widespread, although not officially sanctioned, discrimination about atheists. I agree pointing out to him that he would never vote for former Governor Huntsman of Utah because the man is a Mormon. (You don’t see that as hypocritical?) I want to add a caveat: I am not ragging on anybody’s religion or lack thereof. Rather, I’m celebrating the fact that, in America, everyone has freedom of conscience.

I’m also happy to report that in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, we have never, in my half-century of living in this town, have never had a pissing contest over displays at the state capitol. One reason may be the fact that just one block west and two blocks south of the state house, a distance of just over a hundred yards, Columbus’s biggest department store always featured an electric light display of green electric lights that formed a Christmas tree five stories high. The name of the store was Lazarus. American Ecumenicalism is a wonderful thing.

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