April 18, 2006
court-bashing fairy tales
Don Herzog: April 18, 2006
I'm on all these right-wing email lists. No, I didn't sign up. Someone else signed me up, shortly after I started writing for this blog. Hey, if you're reading this and you're the one who did it: thanks! it's been tons of fun.
Some of my more overheated email comes from the tireless Bobby Eberle, who runs www.gopusa.com. Today Mr. Eberle graced my overstuffed inbox with two, count 'em, two messages. I clicked on the top link in the first and got sent to a "news story" reporting on the sentiments of John Whitehead, lawyer and head of the Rutherford Institute. I confess I was startled by this understated claim:
The central issue in the debate, the pro-family legal advocate contends, is the question of whether Christians are going to be able to say Jesus' name in public in America. "And if you want to be able to do that," he says, "you're going to have to fight the cases."
Whitehead is responding to this opinion, just handed down by the eighth circuit. Steve Warnock had won an injunction against a public school district that "prohibits them from orchestrating or supervising prayers at school graduation or baccalaureate ceremonies." At a baccalaureate ceremony at the high school, Warnock witnessed "an invocation and a benediction by local ministers." The standard on appeal is whether the trial court abused its discretion, and the circuit court ruled that it hadn't: "The defendants contend that the baccalaureate service was a student-organized event, but there was ample evidence on the record to demonstrate that school employees were involved with almost every aspect of the service's preparation."
It's a long way from this to "the question of whether Christians are going to be able to say Jesus' name in public in America." Nothing in the flurry of legal proceedings generated by Warnock even tiptoes toward preventing private parties from invoking Jesus, or talking about religion, as much as they like. The establishment clause worry is about a public school, an arm of the state, promoting religion. But Whitehead presses enthusiastically, shamelessly, on:
Public events and speeches should not have to be censored or excluded "just because someone mentions Jesus' name," Whitehead insists. However, he points out, many special interest groups and liberal organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union apparently disagree and are willing to fight to make sure any Christian references to or expressions of Christian faith are silenced.
Oh please. I'm not a big fan of the ACLU: some of their views on first amendment issues seem to me cartoonish. But they sure do understand the difference between state speech and private speech, the difference Whitehead glides right over. A few years ago, the ACLU brought a lawsuit to force a Tennessee County to remove displays of the ten commandments from public buildings. Here's what the state Executive Director of the ACLU had to say:
The ACLU brought the lawsuit at the request of local clergy and concerned residents, Weinberg explained, to ensure that individuals have the right to decide for themselves whether to practice a particular religious faith or to post the Ten Commandments in their homes or in their businesses.
"Were the government to prohibit the posting of the Ten Commandments in private homes or businesses, the ACLU would fight to protect people's right to promote their religious beliefs and practice their religious faiths. That is what we are here for," she said.
I ruefully suppose that Eberle didn't count on my checking up on Whitehead's claim. "The ACLU is fighting to eliminate all mention of Jesus in public!" Well, no, they're not.
My day's second email from Eberle skips right past gross factual misrepresentation into a smear with no facts at all. This one is a fundraiser for Rick Santorum, whose campaign for re-election as senator from Pennsylvania is in notorious trouble. The short email has eight, count 'em, eight links to click on to donate money to Santorum. (I wondered why Eudora didn't unceremoniously deposit it in the junk box, you know, the one that automatically gets those Nigerian letter scam emails.) The senator says just a bit to excite the poor reader into opening his wallet, including this gem:
The federal courts have declared war on our liberty and our traditional American heritage and we must restore true Constitutional principles to our judicial system.
Yikes! A declaration of war from the courts! Somehow google's capacious news files seem not to have the story. Probably a conspiracy. Alas Santorum doesn't supply any evidence. He doesn't even say quite what he means. Why bother?
Eberle's inflammatory emails are plain absurd. To say the screamingly obviously, courts aren't infallible. But they're not in cahoots with the ACLU to make sure no one can mention Jesus in public. And they aren't traitors.
In 2003, the ACLU of (shudder) Massachusetts went to court — to protect the right of Bible Club members at a public high school to hand out candy canes with extensive religious messages (including, for instance, "Jesus is the pure Lamb of God, who came to be a sacrifice for the sins of the world"). And what did the dastardly federal district court do? Why, they found for the students. This was private speech, not state speech. Easy case. But you'd never dream of it if you get your news from the likes of Bobby Eberle.
Mr. Eberle and his friends seem to hold the American public in contempt. They seem to think the public will believe any alarmist fairy tale they choose to peddle. Shame on them.