Thursday, May 06, 2010

Why not a National Day of Oppression?

This is one of those things that I really, really don't get. Some things I hate and disagree with but I understand. For instance, I think bailing out the banks was a really, really bad idea. I think it only adds to the problem that we are divorcing increasingly large proportions of our economy from any moral hazard. It can't end well. But I do understand why people would think otherwise and why they would advocate for action.

But CNN reports that a U.S. Judge has finally noticed that a National Day of Prayer violates the Constitution. I do not get how such a law can pass even the most casual test of Constitutionality. CNN reports:

The injunction against the National Day of Prayer will not take effect until the defendants in the case, President Obama and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, exhaust their appeals, according to the decision.

So our president, the person we elect who is most responsible for protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States will appeal and fight to keep a law which says:

The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as a National Day
of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in
groups, and as individuals.

And this does not cause him pause when the Constitution he is sworn to protect says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...

I know the argument is that designating a day to be a day on which the people of the United States may turn to God is not establishing a religion. But being able to articulate an argument doesn't mean the argument is defensible on any level.

The really baffling thing in all of this is that the text of the law makes it clear that the authors know it's a violation. The law says that people "may" turn to God. If you have a law that says what a person "may" do with regard to religion, when your constitution prohibits the Congress from prohbiting the free exercise of religion, well then you don't need that law.


JimII said...

Does it matter to you what the authors of the Constitution thought? For example, does it matter to you if they would have find a nondenominational day of prayer to be respecting the establishment of an organized religion?

I don't actually know the answer to this question. And, I think the understanding of what the freedom from religion clause means has greatly expanded over time, which I am completely okay with. Here is how I think these things might be tolerable.

A. In 1783, it meant the United States can't have an official religion, it did not mean that the government could not officially recognize a day of praying.

B. The right to be free from government religion has expanded greatly, but it has left open a space for civic religion.

C. The Day of Prayer fits neatly into the civic religion safe haven.

Matt Dick said...

Yes it mattered what they thought, but not in the simplistic way most people mean when they answer that question.

James Madison authored one of the great achievements of the Enlightenment. And it stopped short of banning slavery--an obvious and enormous failure. But the Enlightenment and the Constitution were aiming toward a better place, and that place made slavery impossible.

I believe the establishment clause (and the Enlightenment) was also aiming toward a better place. As humans, we can, should and must evolve to a better understanding of what it means to conduct our societies to maximize the human potential for fulfillment.

Said more succinctly, just as "All men are endowed by their creator..." aimed us to a place where slavery was impossible, so too did "Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religion..." aim us to a place where secular government was inevitable.