Published in Cumberland Times-News Letters December 24, 2008
J. M. Cutler (“O’Reilly wants to tell us how to mark the season,” Dec. 18 Times-News) misinterprets Bill O’Reilly’s message regarding First Amendment rights as they played out in the Washington state capital recently; and he misrepresents “separation of church and state.”
Mr. O’Reilly cites the situation that Washington state Sen. Pam Roach calls “a circus”(in a Dec. 6 Seattle Times article) as the pinnacle of “far-left zealots…running wild” in what Mr. O’Reilly informs us is an ultra-liberal city in a state that otherwise “is fairly conservative.” He gives examples of over-the-top behaviors, actions and lifestyles in Seattle and its environs; and he makes the point that the governor, in her manner of accommodating the atheists in the capitol building in Olympia, “overstepped” bounds of common consideration in her application of the First Amendment.
Sen. Roach, as the Seattle Times article notes, “wants the atheists’ sign moved further from the Nativity scene and the governor to establish firmer guidelines on displays.” The article states that on Dec. 1, “the Nativity scene and atheist sign were installed alongside each other.” A photograph that accompanies a Dec. 3 Associated Press article shows that they abut.
The AP article recounts that a holiday tree (part of a charity drive for needy families) has been displayed in the capitol for nearly 20 years; a menorah has been sponsored by a Jewish group since 2006; the Nativity scene was installed in 2007; this year, the atheist sign went up with the Nativity. A fray then ensued, as depicted in the Times article, with numerous other groups clamoring to make their religious viewpoints known.
In a 1984 case (Lynch v. Donnelly), the Supreme Court ruled that a crèche display (which had been in place since 1943) in the Pawtucket, Rhode Island, shopping district did not violate the First Amendment Establishment Clause, citing “insufficient evidence to establish that the inclusion of the crèche is a purposeful or surreptitious effort to express some kind of subtle governmental advocacy of a particular religious” view (Source: Wikipedia).
The judges ruled that the crèche, within the larger display, had “legitimate secular purposes” in marking a federal holiday “with religious significance” that long has been a part of Western culture; and they wrote that the Constitution “affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any.”
The verbiage in the atheists’ sign seems hostile. The placement seems transgressive. The brouhaha seems to be the result of neglect in Gov. Christine Gregoire's action. That’s Mr. O’Reilly’s point.
The governor allowed viewpoints. Then after about 30 viewpoints had been posted, and her office had been overwhelmed with as many as 9,000 dissenting telephone calls in one day (according to the Seattle Times), the governor said that no more entries would be accepted. She could have allowed “religious holiday displays” with “certain guidelines…that wouldn’t be viewpoints,” says Fox News’ Megan Kelly (in a Dec. 15 debate with Mr. O’Reilly) and avoided the fiasco and still properly upheld First Amendment rights.
Contrary to what Mr. Cutler implies, “separation of church and state” does not mean that one should exclude the other. It means that the state shall not intimidate or dominate any religion, but civilly accommodate all religions. The founding fathers drew upon their ancestors’ experiences (particularly the English Civil War of the 1640s that ended the Church of England’s monopoly on Christian worship there) to determine that in a democracy, the state must not monopolize or persecute any religion.
As explained at Wikipedia, Thomas Jefferson (quoted in his biography on the White House web site as having “sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”) coined the phrase in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, a religious minority who feared the majority position of the Congregationalist Church in Connecticut. The colonists, having largely come to America to find refuge from religious persecution, rightly feared government preference for one religion over another.
President Jefferson replied to a letter from the Danbury Baptists to assure them, as summarized by Wikipedia, “that their rights as a religious minority would be protected from federal interference.” That premise underpins “freedom of religion” within the Bill of Rights First Amendment.
The laws and values of the United States are rooted in a political and philosophical tradition of liberty and equality: That’s democracy. Laws and values interconnect and build on history to form guidelines for conduct in modern society: That’s civility. Without regard for order, establishment and each other, the public square is a free-for-all: That’s the state of affairs that Bill O’Reilly calls our attention to in Washington State today.
Nancy E. Thoerig