Wednesday, March 3, 2010

James McElroy at UCSD

Tonight Rational Thought @ UCSD was lucky enough to hear a talk from James McElroy, the award-winning civil rights attorney who has been fighting the San Diego Mt. Soledad Cross case for twenty-one years. (I had no idea this tortuous case had been going on for that long.

Besides talking about Mt. Soledad, McElroy went into detail on the last half-century of Establishment-Clause-related cases in the U.S. He had a few things to say that were new to me, and a few that are always worth emphasizing.

1) What we can do: attorneys avoid these cases because they're incredibly unpopular, and politicians usually flee from any attempt to show leadership on these issues. So public support really does make a difference. Letters to the editor are more effective than you realize.

2) What else we can do: recognize that many Christians (wisely!) want the government to have absolutely nothing to do with their religion, and vice versa. These are allies in our struggle to keep church and state separate. Americans United is probably the best example of such a coalition. They do good stuff. Check them out and donate.

3) Mt. Soledad-specific: the City of San Diego and the plaintiffs had actually settled the case, and the cross was going to be removed from the "war memorial" at the top of the mountain and given to a church 1,000 yards away. At the last minute, two local religious conservatives in U.S. Congress intervened and passed a law declaring Federal eminent domain. This is worth emphasizing if you get into a discussion about the Mt. Soledad cross: the only reason it's still standing and the court case is still going on is because the Federal government declared eminent domain and seized it from a local government. Federal powers and eminent domain are apparently not popular with the religious right, so run that one into the ground.

4) Did you know that there's a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol in Austin, and the Supreme Court said it could stay? Amazing how that got so much less press than the Alabama case or the San Diego cross.

5) The Knights of Columbus was the organization that lobbied to insert "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance. Something to bring up to the various anti-Papist Calvinists and Evangelicals whenever this comes up in conversation. It was unnatural Virgin-Mary-worshipping, Pope-kissing Catholics who put "under God" into the Pledge.

6) A favorite trick of religious conservatives is to claim the words "separation of church and state" don't occur in the Constitution. a) True, but who cares? The Establishment Clause is still there. b) Where the phrase does occur is in a letter President Jefferson wrote to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut who were worried that their tax dollars would go to other religions they didn't approve of. Run this one into the ground: "separation of church and state" was coined to reassure Baptists that the United States government would protect their right to worship without coercion.

7) Another favorite religious right trick is to claim that, when a court decision doesn't go their way, their freedom of religion is being infringed. Big distinction: individuals' rights are what is protected. Roy Moore can do whatever he wants when he's not working. It's when he sets a Ten Commandments monument up in a building paid for by Alabama taxpayers, that's when he has a problem. Government speech endorsing or condemning religion is what's restricted here, not individual actions. Now is the religious right going to stand up to defend the rights of the government to do as it pleases? Probably not. Another talking point.

8) Personal recommendation: if someone puts up a manger scene next to City Hall in your town, and there's a fuss and City Hall says "No one's stopping you from putting up something from your own religion, so it's not discriminatory", don't screw around with the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Everyone knows no one believes in that. Put up a Qu'ran display. That's when you find out what's what.

It was great seeing a talk by a bona fide civil rights and Separation hero. Rational Thought @ UCSD will continue having events like this (and like Victor Stenger's popular talk a couple weeks ago). If you're in the San Diego area, stop by next time - we're on the main San Diego events calendar.


TGP said...

Manger scene: How about just re-purposing an old manger scene instead. They're probably easier to find. I'm thinking replace the heads with the likenesses of famous secular folks.

Michael Caton said...

That might not work out so well. Funny though the thought is, it's more easily argued that that is an attack on Christianity rather than secularists doing their own thing.

TGP said...

The challenge is getting it recognized as an atheist holiday display.

The only one I've seen looked like it was designed by the the love child of a college bulletin board and the Time Cube guy.

It might be factually right and informative, but it's really ugly.

How about a giant mock up of Sagan's dandelion seed spaceship from Cosmos?