Saturday, June 21, 2008

Claiming the Exclusive 'Right' to Appear Religious

In the United States, the state of South Carolina, like many states, offers specialty license places for drivers of automobiles. In some cases, as in Michigan, specialty license plates offer a way to raise funds for social causes the purchasers advocate. In other cases, they also offer ways for the state to raise extra revenue without raising taxes across the entire population. Of course, the catch is that the plates, as official state-issued material, carry the imprimatur of the State, and any entanglements thereof.

While many of the causes aren't too controversial, South Carolina is initiating a specialty plate for Christians. And not really just Christians, but with an eye towards Protestant Christians. In fact, the Lieutenant Governor, Andre Bauer, is willing to put up a fund reserve to finance plate printing, as long as he gets reimbursed from the State. This has become a legal issue, like the placement of the so-called "Ten Commandments" in public and legal spaces. And like these other issues, the State is now being sued by some peoples and organizations to stop this practice. One of the organizations, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, accuses Lt. Gov. Bauer of election-year pandering to fundamentalist voters. For Bauer's part, he suggests that its about freedom of speech, freedom to express one's beliefs, and a cultural push back against secularists.

"People who support Judeo-Christian values are ever under fire now," Bauer said. "It's like they expect folks who are believers just to roll over because they're scared of the ACLU." And, as usual in American political rhetoric, for someone who claims to promote "Judeo-Christian" values, its really all about the Christianity, and has almost nothing to do with Judaism. How can we tell? Simple. There is no corresponding Jewish license plate being offered.

The sample plate above is not South Carolina's but rather a design that was proposed in Florida and ultimately rejected by the legislature there. The South Carolina plate design has not been finalized, but it will include the sentence "I believe." If it follows the Florida design it will use a cross (not a crucifix) and will say nothing about the practice of the sacraments, which is fundamental to both Roman Catholic and Orthodox Catholic practitioners. So once again, as is so common in American religious history, Protestant Christian discourse will be made to stand in for other forms of Christianity, as well as the phantom Judaism of "Judeo-Christian" values.

As one might expect, some actual members of the Jewish community were not to happy to hear about this, including Mark Stern, legal council for the American Jewish Congress, which was planning to bring suit. A federal lawsuit has already been filed by Rev. Barry Lynn and his group Americans United. The suit was filed on behalf of two Christian ministers, a rabbi, the Hindu American Federation, and a humanist pastor in SC. In fact, the Hindu American Federation is framing this issue as an interfaith effort, given the diversity of the plaintiffs. You can read the complaint yourself as well. (PDF)

When trying to understand the "culture war" issues that undegird religion and law in the United States, its helpful to look for some code words. Those on the political right tend to focus on all expressions of (what they see as legitimate) belief as "free expression." Even when an issue is presented that clearly favors one religion over another in the public square, its preferential treatment is due to the community's "heritage." Conversely, when belief and expression arise from minority groups in the public square occurs and is not seen as legitimate, those actions are often deemed part of a 'war against Christianity' or a attack on religion by those who 'hate religion.' For example, even though the Americans United suit is being filed by Jews, Christians, humanists and Hindus (on the political center-left), those facts are invisible--any pushback is framed as from those who are not religious. For example...

Republican House Speaker Bobby Harrell said residents asked for a way to express their beliefs, and legislators responded... "That's what critics always say when they see something they don't like," Harrell said. "I think this has less to do with the First Amendment and more to do with their disdain for religion generally."

On the other hand, there are those, often on the political left, who wish to see all expressions of religiosity removed from the public square, mostly because they see religion as merely a vestige of what others would call superstition. It is still quite politically dangerous to claim one is an atheist--there are more Buddhists, Muslims, or certainly Mormons in the U.S. Congress than open atheists.

The most successful example I have seen of the Federal government allowing religous identification in a respectful and pluralistic way has been the Veterans Administration's handling of religious symbols for burial markers and headstones. Even though the current Administration had been fighting the inclusion of the Wiccan pentacle for some time, the presence of so many different traditions receiving recognition and available use by the Federal government suggests that there are constitutionally-protected ways to allow many different adherents of different religions (including Protestant Christians) to use license plates issued by State governments as a way of identifying themselves without claiming a rhetorically-exclusive 'right to be appear religious'.

Sadly, it appears that neither Americans United or the state of South Carolina has stumbled upon what seems to be an obvious solution.

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