A new report surveys the the ever growing hostility toward religious belief in America.
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THE FORGOING IS BUT THE TIP of the proverbial iceberg of First Amendment litigation, however. In a number of cases government actively sought to suppress free speech by religious people. Several cities attempted to mandate disclosures by pregnancy resource centers that do not support abortion. Others sought to limit the activities of anti-abortion protesters. Phoenix, Arizona employed a noise ordinance against religious organizations, such as ringing church bells. The Dallas Housing Authority banned religious services on its property, before retreating under pressure.
Invocations and prayers at government functions and on government property generated many lawsuits. There is little consistency in the rulings, other than the tendency of jurists to count the number of angels dancing on pinheads in order to distinguish one case from another. In Colorado a state court voided the governor’s proclamation of a day of prayer for favoring those who prayed over those who did not do so. In Lodi, California, the city was attacked for allowing any citizen, of faith or no faith, to offer an invocation before city council meetings.
Holiday observances, too, have sparked extensive litigation. Suits have been filed when government closed offices on or allowed workers to take off religious holidays. Lawsuits over Christmas decorations — including crèches, menorahs, nativity scenes, and Christmas trees — are endless and the rulings are endlessly arbitrary, resting on fine distinctions rarely observable to the untrained legal eye.
Lawsuits even have been threatened when government employees put up religious decorations in their own offices. The Petoskey, Michigan School Board gave up plans to return to Christmas Break from Winter Holiday Break when threatened with a lawsuit. Public protests caused Merced, California to abandon plans to change the name of its Christmas Parade to Holiday Parade. A suit was filed against the erection of the World Trade Center cross, made up of two steel girders saved from the wreckage of the two original buildings. One housing authority told residents of its senior citizen facilities that they could not sing Christmas carols.
Another government seniors’ home told residents that they could not display religious decorations outside of their rooms. The Indiana Department of Health banned “Christmas” parties, even during the lunch hour, before retreating after receiving a legal demand letter. A school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, told students and teachers not to say “Merry Christmas.” In Naples, Florida, a fire station removed Christmas lights in response to neighborhood complaints. A library in Chandler, Arizona, eliminated its holiday display, with materials on Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, after a pastor requested inclusion of books on Christmas.
LEGAL BATTLES ALSO SURROUND government memorials and monuments. Crosses are the most obvious point of contention. For instance, the Association of Atheists and Freethinkers complained about a cross erected privately at Camp Pendleton to the memory of all fallen Marines. Displays of the Ten Commandments suffer a similar fate, with cases revolving around whether their role is seen as secular or religious. Similar challenges, with similar results, are regularly launched over government mottos, sculptures, and seals. Longevity, history, and tradition mean little when religious symbols are involved. While Richmond County, Virginia’s 130-year-old seal survived an establishment challenge, the 90-year-old seal for the city of Zion, Illinois, did not.
Schools, from elementary through university, provide another constant battleground. One set of issues involve the right to start religious clubs and use school facilities. Schools often resist, with frequent success, student efforts to organize, sometimes on the grounds of “nondiscrimination.” Schools have attempted to censor student papers and readings, valedictory speeches, research projects, class participation, songs, pictures, poetry, event invitations, Valentine’s Day cards, clothes, jewelry, greeting cards, community service, and personal gifts to eliminate any religious content, as well as limit political speech, such as the wearing of t-shirts. University graduate programs in counseling have begun to expel students unwilling to affirm homosexuality.
Miami-Dade Community College threatened to arrest students who distributed religious cards on campus. Pellissippi State Community College barred students from handing out Christian materials. A lawsuit was filed to prevent a high school choir from singing religious songs. The Santa Rosa County, Florida school district prohibited students or teachers from saying “God bless.” Teachers and administrators have thrown away students’ Bibles and book covers with religious themes.
Student-initiated and -led prayers routinely face legal challenge. In many cases schools concede the issue without a formal legal fight. At the College of Alameda two students were suspended for “disruptive behavior” for praying in an office. Two years of legal battles ensued with a student victory.
Litigation has been intense involving scholarship, choice, and voucher programs. The legal distinctions between decisions are as arcane and arbitrary as elsewhere. Free speech by teachers and administrations also often is at issue. A high school principal and athletic director were charged with criminal contempt for praying over a meal. Pennsylvania barred teachers from wearing religious jewelry. A Clay County, Florida principal was sued by the assistant principal for including religious comments in emails. A biology teacher in Capistrano, California, was forbidden from discussing religious topics on school grounds, even outside of class.
A professor successfully sued the University of North Carolina-Wilmington for denying a promotion based on his religious and political views expressed off-campus. The University of Toledo fired a professor for writing a newspaper editorial on her religious views of homosexuality. The University of Illinois fired and then reinstated an adjunct professor for lecturing on homosexuality in his introductory class on Catholicism. A Santa Barbara, California principal was fired for participating in a community prayer breakfast — and later was reinstated by a federal judge. Religious schools also have faced legal challenges when attempting to enforce doctrinal requirements on teachers, though the courts generally supported the schools.
Another set of legal battles revolve around the access of religious students to school facilities. The Supreme Court affirmed that Hastings Law School could violate the right of association of religious students in the name of nondiscrimination. Variants of this policy played out across the nation at high schools and universities.
Schools routinely found themselves threatened with lawsuits for holding graduation ceremonies in religious facilities even for nonreligious reasons. Several libraries banned the discussion of religious books or use of space by religious groups. Land use restrictions, especially on the construction or expansion of church or para-church buildings, also are common. Discrimination against religious organizations hurts Islamic and Jewish religious communities as well as Christian ones.
Most of the forgoing cases should never have ended up in court. Most of them could have been resolved with a little more good will on one side or the other. Very few represent irreconcilable conflicts.
Non-believers are, and should remain, free to reject religion. However, hostility toward faith appears to be rising, which is not good for Christians or anyone else. It is more important than ever for religious people to be vigilant and resist state threats against this most fundamental liberty.
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