Wash your hands or say a prayer? Social distancing or Sunday mass? Cancel public events or give out coronavirus communion wafers to the credulous?
Many believers face these choices as the coronavirus spreads. There is no religious response to the pandemic, unless we count abandoning religious rules in favor of science and medicine. Faced with these choices, most people accept that religion is pointless, at best, and harmful, at worst. Most are making decisions that appear to be motivated by science and medicine, not scripture and sacred doctrine.
And this is different.
Think about American responses to mass shootings or drought or oil spills or wildfires. Thoughts and prayers. Prayer vigils. More god. As horrific as some of these tragedies are, our response to preventing repeats, especially for mass shootings, is little different than the immediate response: Get on your knees and pray.
We’re not in the aftermath of a catastrophe or thinking about the best way to prevent some hypothetical tragedy — we are in the middle of an outbreak, a pandemic. In the wake of tragedy, we at FFRF often get complaints about government officials using government power to push people to religion or prayer. This may simply be a misguided attempt to assuage societal sorrow or it may be a deliberate attempt to prey on the unfortunate. Both are plausible, neither is permissible. But what is interesting is that, so far, we are not seeing that as a response to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. In fact, while FFRF reliably gets state-church complaints after a front-page tragedy, we’ve had none about responses to the coronavirus.
So far, we’ve had no reports of teachers telling kids “this is in God’s hands” or that the virus “is God’s wrath” (which some clergy are now preaching). So far, we’ve had no complaints about coaches or principals telling students to pray to end the outbreak. Not even local government officials touting the efficacy of thoughts and prayers as a response, at least not yet.
In perhaps the most telling response, even churches are getting in on the science. Catholic churches are draining holy water and shuttering after infected priests passed out slices of their savior’s flesh. Catholic schools are closing. Not just mainline churches but fringe churches are also shutting down. Even — and this is the most telling of all and a glorious admission — faith-healing congregations are halting programming. Just three months ago, Bethel Church in Northern California promised to raise 2-year-old Olive from the dead. Now, it’s refusing to visit hospitals to pray for and prey on the sick.
There are, of course, exceptions to the general observation that people are abandoning harmful and ineffective religious regulations in favor of science and medicine. But the clingers seem to be at the higher, more removed, and dare we say, privileged, levels. The Christian Nationalist Trump administration and its political appointees have bungled the response, suffocated information that might reflect poorly on the White House, and have sought to tout their religion and prayers. But they appear to be the exception to the rule. Vice President Mike Pence is all about the prayer, as we documented last week. As is the pope, who has encouraged priests to visit those infected with the coronavirus and give them communion. Francis won’t be putting his fingers in mouths laden with coronavirus, his lackeys will, and then they’ll move on to another mouth and another. This, in the country with one of the worst outbreaks. Then there’s Joel Osteen, the greedy and shortsighted megapreacher who can’t go two or three weeks without passing the collection plate, even to save the lives of a few of his sheep.
One wannabe Osteen, a right-wing preacher named Jonathan Shuttlesworth, posted a video in which he said churches that heed medical guidance and close are “sissies” and “pansies,” with “no balls” who “got neutered somewhere along the line.”
But in between his sips of Acqua Panna, this Patagonia-clad preacher stumbled on the truth when he asked of the basins bereft of holy water: “How holy is the water then? That should be a sign to you that your whole religion’s a fraud. Any faith that doesn’t work in real life is a fake faith. Totally fake.” Even without this refreshing admission, Osteen, Trump, Pence and the pope were already proving the point: Religion has nothing to offer in the face of a pandemic. Instead, we must rely on science and medicine. Wash your hands, work from home, avoid travel and large crowds, don’t hoard supplies: Flatten the curve.
An immense Latin cross stands on a traffic island at the center of a busy three-way intersection in Bladensburg, Md. “Monumental, clear, and bold” by day, the cross looms even larger illuminated against the night-time sky. Known as the Peace Cross, the monument was erected by private citizens in 1925 to honor local soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. “The town’s most prominent symbol” was rededicated in 1985 and is now said to honor “the sacrifices made in all wars,” by “all veterans.” Both the Peace Cross and the traffic island are owned and maintained by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, an agency of the state of Maryland.
Decades ago, this court recognized that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution demands governmental neutrality among religious faiths, and between religion and nonreligion. Numerous times since, the court has reaffirmed the Constitution’s commitment to neutrality. Today, the court erodes that neutrality commitment, diminishing precedent designed to preserve individual liberty and civic harmony in favor of a “presumption of constitutionality for longstanding monuments, symbols and practices.”
The Latin cross is the foremost symbol of the Christian faith, embodying the “central theological claim of Christianity: that the son of God died on the cross, that he rose from the dead, and that his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life.” Precisely because the cross symbolizes these sectarian beliefs, it is a common marker for the graves of Christian soldiers. For the same reason, using the cross as a war memorial does not transform it into a secular symbol, as the courts of appeals have uniformly recognized.
Some of my colleagues suggest that the court’s new presumption extends to all governmental displays and practices, regardless of their age. ‘A more contemporary state effort’ to put up a religious display is ‘likely to prove divisive in a way that a longstanding, pre-existing monument would not.’” I read the court’s opinion to mean what it says: “Retaining established, religiously expressive monuments, symbols, and practices is quite different from erecting or adopting new ones,” and, consequently, only “longstanding monuments, symbols, and practices” enjoy “a presumption of constitutionality.”
Cross not suitable for other faiths
Just as a Star of David is not suitable to honor Christians who died serving their country, so a cross is not suitable to honor those of other faiths who died defending their nation. Soldiers of all faiths “are united by their love of country, but they are not united by the cross.” By maintaining the Peace Cross on a public highway, the commission elevates Christianity over other faiths, and religion over nonreligion. Memorializing the service of American soldiers is an “admirable and unquestionably secular” objective.
But the commission does not serve that objective by displaying a symbol that bears “a starkly sectarian message.” The First Amendment commands that the government “shall make no law” either “respecting an establishment of religion” or “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Adoption of these complementary provisions followed centuries of “turmoil, civil strife, and persecution, generated in large part by established sects determined to maintain their absolute political and religious supremacy.”
Mindful of that history, the fledgling Republic ratified the Establishment Clause, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, to “build a wall of separation between church and state.”
Government may not favor
The Establishment Clause essentially instructs: “The government may not favor one religion over another, or religion over irreligion.”
In cases challenging the government’s display of a religious symbol, the court has tested fidelity to the principle of neutrality by asking whether the display has the “effect of ‘endorsing’ religion.” The display fails this requirement if it objectively “conveys a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred.” To make that determination, a court must consider “the pertinent facts and circumstances surrounding the symbol and its placement.”
As I see it, when a cross is displayed on public property, the government may be presumed to endorse its religious content. The venue is surely associated with the state; the symbol and its meaning are just as surely associated exclusively with Christianity.
To non-Christians, nearly 30 percent of the population of the United States, the state’s choice to display the cross on public buildings or spaces conveys a message of exclusion: It tells them they “are outsiders, not full members of the political community.”
“For nearly two millennia,” the Latin cross has been the “defining symbol” of Christianity, evoking the foundational claims of that faith. Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ was “a divine Savior” who “illuminated a path toward salvation and redemption.” Central to the religion are the beliefs that “the son of God,” Jesus Christ, “died on the cross,” that “he rose from the dead,” and that “his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life.” “From its earliest times,” Christianity was known as “religio crucis — the religion of the cross.”
Christians wear crosses, not as an ecumenical symbol, but to proclaim their adherence to Christianity. An exclusively Christian symbol, the Latin cross is not emblematic of any other faith.
The principal symbol of Christianity around the world should not loom over public thoroughfares, suggesting official recognition of that religion’s paramountcy.
The commission’s “attempts to secularize what is unquestionably a sacred symbol defy credibility and disserve people of faith.” The asserted commemorative meaning of the cross rests on — and is inseparable from — its Christian meaning: “the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the redeeming benefits of his passion and death,” specifically, “the salvation of man.” Because of its sacred meaning, the Latin cross has been used to mark Christian deaths since at least the fourth century. The cross on a grave “says that a Christian is buried here,” and “commemorates that person’s death by evoking a conception of salvation and eternal life reserved for Christians.”
As a commemorative symbol, the Latin cross simply “makes no sense apart from the crucifixion, the resurrection, and Christianity’s promise of eternal life.” The cross affirms that, thanks to the soldier’s embrace of Christianity, he will be rewarded with eternal life. “To say that the cross honors the Christian war dead does not identify a secular meaning of the cross; it merely identifies a common application of the religious meaning.” Scarcely “a universal symbol of sacrifice,” the cross is “the symbol of one particular sacrifice.”
Every court of appeals to confront the question has held that “making a . . . Latin cross a war memorial does not make the cross secular,” it “makes the war memorial sectarian.” The Peace Cross is no exception. That was evident from the start. At the dedication ceremony, the keynote speaker analogized the sacrifice of the honored soldiers to that of Jesus Christ, calling the Peace Cross “symbolic of Calvary,” where Jesus was crucified. Local reporters variously described the monument as “a mammoth cross, a likeness of the Cross of Calvary, as described in the bible,” “a monster Calvary cross,” and “a huge sacrifice cross.”
The character of the monument has not changed with the passage of time.
Not a universal symbol
Reiterating its argument that the Latin cross is a “universal symbol” of World War I sacrifice, the commission states that “40 World War I monuments . . . built in the United States . . . bear the shape of a cross.” This figure includes memorials that merely “incorporate” a cross. Moreover, the 40 monuments compose only 4 percent of the “948 outdoor sculptures commemorating the First World War.” The court lists just seven freestanding cross memorials, less than 1 percent of the total number of monuments to World War I in the United States. Cross memorials, in short, are outliers. The overwhelming majority of World War I memorials contain no Latin cross. In fact, the “most popular and enduring memorial of the post-World War I decade” was “the mass-produced Spirit of the American Doughboy statue.” That statue, depicting a U.S. infantryman, “met with widespread approval throughout American communities.”
The Peace Cross, as plaintiffs’ expert historian observed, was an “aberration . . . even in the era in which it was built and dedicated.” Like cities and towns across the country, the United States military comprehended the importance of “paying equal respect to all members of the Armed Forces who perished in the service of our country,” and therefore avoided incorporating the Latin cross into memorials. The construction of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is illustrative. When a proposal to place a cross on the Tomb was advanced, the Jewish Welfare Board objected; no cross appears on the Tomb. In sum, “there is simply ‘no evidence . . . that the cross has been widely embraced by’ — or even applied to — ‘non-Christians as a secular symbol of death’ or of sacrifice in military service” in World War I or otherwise.
The Establishment Clause, which preserves the integrity of both church and state, guarantees that “however . . . individuals worship, they will count as full and equal American citizens.”
“If the aim of the Establishment Clause is genuinely to uncouple government from church,” the clause does “not permit . . . a display of the character” of Bladensburg’s Peace Cross.
— This is an edited and condensed version of the dissent, written by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in the Bladensburg cross case
Jesus is not a religion, Jesus is in every religion across the globe. If you don’t believe that Jesus existed, then he would be fiction. If he’s fiction, and you want to remove his name from everything then you need to remove every fiction name that there is across the country. That means we couldn’t say Superman welcomes you to town.
Texas city has at long last removed a “Jesus Welcomes You to Hawkins” sign that the Freedom From Religion Foundation objected to years ago.
Back in 2015, the state/church watchdog twice wrote to the city of Hawkins about the blatantly Christian sign on city property after receiving local complaints.
“The Establishment Clause prohibits government sponsorship of religious messages,” FFRF Associate Counsel Sam Grover noted. “The Supreme Court has been clear that the ‘First Amendment mandates government neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.’”
The city of Hawkins violated this neutrality with a prominent governmental sign that proclaimed “Jesus Welcomes You” and endorsed belief in the pre-eminent figure of Christianity, FFRF pointed out. It sent a clear message to those with Christian beliefs that they’re favored community insiders and an equally clear message to those who believe differently that they’re not.
Then Hawkins-Mayor Will Rogers, the creative mind behind the sign, which he commissioned public school students to build, defended it with media statements such as “Jesus is not a religion, Jesus is in every religion across the globe. He’s in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism” and “If you don’t believe that Jesus existed, then he would be fiction. If he’s fiction, and you want to remove his name from everything, then you need to remove every fiction name that there is across the country. That means we couldn’t say ‘Superman welcomes you to town.’”
Fortunately, better sense prevailed in the rest of the city administration, and it heeded FFRF’s advice, albeit after many twists and turns.
The City Council voted to remove the sign after FFRF’s second letter, but then events headed in a strange direction after the mayor got into a long tussle with the city. He sued eight city officials and a bunch of other residents for supposedly resisting his attempts to root out corruption. Rogers settled the lawsuit but narrowly lost his re-election bid, with the sign playing a major role in the campaign.
Meanwhile, a group of supporters of the sign claimed that it was on private property, while the city contended that it had an easement to build a road on the land and, therefore, it was city-owned. The land turned out to be on the property of a funeral home that wanted nothing to do with the controversy, but then an entity called “Jesus Christ Open Altar Church, LLC” brought a lawsuit against the city after claiming to have bought the land from the funeral home. FFRF waited and watched while the lawsuit was underway. Finally, the city won that lawsuit on appeal and recently removed the sign.
FFRF is breathing a sigh of relief at this overdue victory for the U.S. Constitution — and for the rights of minority believers and nonbelievers in the community.
“We believe in justice for the good people of this country — even justice that is long delayed,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Finally, the city of Hawkins is in compliance with the law of the land — and has stopped sending a divisive and exclusionary message.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nonprofit founded in 1978, has over 31,000 nonreligious members and several chapters around the country, including more than 1,300 members and a chapter in Texas.
The above comic, drawn by Don Addis, was recently featured on the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s website. I thought it nicely summed up attempts to outlaw abortion by Evangelicals and conservative Roman Catholics. These zygote worshiping zealots will not rest until abortion (and birth control) is outlawed and criminalized.
Are you a member of the Freedom of Religion Foundation? If not, I encourage you join with over 30,000 other freethinkers as they support and defend the separation of church and state. For more membership information, please go here.
The egomaniacal and rapacious drives of a molester who blots out all sense of right and wrong, brutally disregarding the pain he is causing children, have often found a parallel in churches bent on protecting themselves at the expense of thousands of victims. That disregard is a malignancy in the church . . .
If religion or any institution depends on the sexual exploitation or subordination of children or women, then it is better that such institutions should cease to exist. If it is a question of the survival of the institution of the church versus the survival and safety of children, then our allegiance clearly must be with children.