It seems that anytime a public display of religion occurs, there’s someone somewhere who finds a way to sue over it. Take, for instance, southern Illinois. About fifty years ago, a group of farmers got together to raise money to put a cross on southern Illinois’ highest point. The action was faith-based as they wanted to cross to cause self-reflection and incite a need for Jesus. As time has gone on, the cross has become much more of a tourist attraction due to its immense size (bringing in money for the state) rather than something that causes conversions.
Since the law of entropy is still in effect (and doesn’t seem to be relenting its hold on the material world anytime soon), in the last fifty years, the cross has slowly decayed. Since it does bring in revenue for the state (due to tourism), the state decided to give $20,000 to the estimated $500,000 needed for renewal. This has caused an atheist in Illinois to sue the state to get the money back, citing separation of church and state.
Now the lawsuit is, in a lot of ways, absurd. For one, let us assume in a possible world that the Greek parthenon was located in the United States. Let’s say that the Native Americans worshipped ancient gods in this parthenon. Furthermore, let us also assume that we still had the first amendment. As time went on, the parthenon began to decay. Even if some people in the US viewed the Parthenon as religious, would the US be wrong to give money to the parthenon to have it restored? The answer is no. They’re not supporting a religion by doing so, instead they’re helping to solidify what would be a tourist attraction and a historical landmark.
The case would have merit if this was a church attempting to build the cross now. In that case, government funds shouldn’t go to help the church (that is the equivalent to taxing people for a specific church). But I fail to see how this is a separation of church and state. If there was a memorial to Jews lost in WWII, or more specifically to rabbis lost in WWII, and a Star of David needed to be refurbished, then I’d happy allow my tax money to be used for it. If there was a memorial to Muslim soldiers in US wars and the Crescent Moon needed to be refurbished, then I’d want my state to step in. This goes for any memorial using a religious symbol.
The problem with being against all things religious is that it really makes you a miserable and illogical person. You end up being so secular that you begin to infringe upon people’s rights. France serves as the perfect example where it banned the Hijab (Islamic head covering for women) from public schools. For those who think that this could never happen in America, a young man recently was told by a school that he couldn’t wear rosary beads to school because they could potentially be used as gang symbols (thankfully, the court ruled in favor of the boy).
The problem with such lawsuits and anti-religious sentiments is that it eventually ends up prohibiting people from exercising their religion. The First Amendment was originally intended as a way to prevent states from taxing people to give money to a church. For instance, if the state wanted to pay for building a new Islamic mosque, or a Christian church, or an “atheist center,” or what have you, they could not do so because that would be supporting a religion. At the same time, who’s to say that a government official (such as a teacher) or people in public can’t support their religion?
A Christian thanking God for graduating from high school at a high school commencement speech might offend some people. A Christian saying, “I hope all of you learn to find comfort in Christ, for He is the ultimate comfort” might make some people feel like they’re being preached at. A Muslim thanking Allah for graduating from high school would certainly offend me. If the Muslims said that I must follow the 5 Pillars of Islam to be a happy and fulfilled person, I would be greatly offended. But just because I’m offended doesn’t mean my rights have been violated. A private citizen at a high school graduation neither forced the government to support religion nor prohibited my free exercise of religion.
The problem in America is that many of these lawsuits are attempting to eradicate religion completely from the public square. Very rarely does a lawsuit have to do with actually following the First Amendment (certainly our Deistic Founders would know if a religion was being supported since they ascribed to no religion), but instead with eradicating public displays of religion. Most of the time such hostility is directed towards conservative Christians (after all, how many people ridiculed Nancy Pelosi for saying that the Word guided her?).
The fact is, such anti-religious behavior is bound to make a person miserable. It doesn’t allow them to enjoy the diversity of America and what has made us great. When I see other religious symbols, even though I know they’re wrong I still love the fact that such people can freely worship in this nation. There is no test they have to pass. Though I ardently believe that Christ is the only way to God, I will also defend other religion’s rights to exist free from government interference. But if you’re always out to find theocracy under every rock, then how can you possibly begin to enjoy diversity?
And that is what separation of church and state is about, not about religions getting too involved in the state (though this can be a problem), but in the State getting too involved in religions.