Anyone who has been paying attention to American public life in recent decades knows that lots of people are getting very uncomfortable with that whole First Amendment thing. Many people are especially uncomfortable with free, even offensive speech about religion in any setting connected with government, public life, tax dollars, etc. Some even act as if religious speech is uniquely dangerous, in comparison with speech about other topics.
This is a serious issue and one that journalists cannot avoid covering, in these times.
The key church-state principle is that the government is not supposed to favor a particular religion. Thus, state officials are supposed to avoid getting involved in decisions -- "entangled" is the big word -- about which religions and doctrines are acceptable and which ones are not. They are supposed to err on the side of free exercise, but without allowing officials to openly favor one set of religious doctrines over another.
But what happens when some state officials consistently use their free speech rights in ways that offend the religious views of others (in effect establishing a favored, state-endorsed religion)? That's when people of good will need to evoke "equal access" principles.
Now, I realize that equal access principles -- another product of the amazing left-right church-state coalition in the Clinton era -- are primarily used in disputes linked to schools and the use of other public lands and facilities. But every now and then you see disputes of this kind show up in other settings. Take, for example, the drama that The Baltimore Sun is currently attempting to cover in nearby Carroll County. Here is the top of the report:
A divided Carroll County board of commissioners voted Tuesday to no longer invoke Jesus Christ in prayers before government sessions, a measure one commissioner said “binds me to an act of disobedience against my Christian faith.”
The measure passed by a 3-2 vote amid legal pressure for the board to stop sectarian references in invocations. A federal judge in Baltimore last month issued an injunction against the practice, which is being challenged in court by some county residents who say the prayers disregard their beliefs. The commissioners resolved Tuesday that prayers may still reference “God,” “Lord God,” “Creator” and “Lord of Lords,” among other monotheistic names. But they must be non-sectarian and led by board president David Roush, who voted in favor of the change.
Richard Rothschild, one of two commissioners who opposed the resolution, said it would force him “to refuse to acknowledge the Son of God,” a statement that drew shouts of “Amen” from the handful of residents on hand.
“I humbly and respectfully declare that I cannot and will not sign a document that forward binds me to enact disobedience against my Christian faith,” Rothschild added.
So what is the problem here, from the point of view of the board's majority?
Monica Miller, a lawyer for the American Humanist Association, stated this point of view rather bluntly:
Miller said the commissioners were wise to require that only Roush offer prayers, since she said some other commissioners “have a track record of praying illegally and unconstitutionally.”
“Overall, this looks like a good start,” she said. The Humanist group advocates for the rights of people who do not believe in God.
So what is the journalistic problem here?
Now, I realize that many newsrooms no longer contain many professionals who are old enough to remember events linked to the Clinton White House, which was not exactly a right-wing regime. However, I would once again like to refer to equal access principles -- not because I want to argue about them. No, I am simply stating that journalists need to understand some of the issues that may (repeat may) be looming in the background in this story, on the side that appears to be losing this debate at the moment.
Thus, I want to ask about two specific issues:
(1) It appears that, in the past, various board members were allowed -- in some kind of rotation -- to pray in whatever manner they saw fit. The Sun needs to tell readers the facts on that.
Now, some citizens are being offended by explicitly Christian prayers and others are being offended by the attempt to silence a few, but not all, of the board members who have insisted on using explicitly Christian language. Question: Has the board's prayer tradition, in effect, created a forum in which only Christians -- liberal or conservative -- are getting to pray? Is there equal access for believers in other traditions found in the county to pray freely in the language of their faiths?
(2) At the moment, it appears that the board's majority has decided that some religious doctrines are safely endorsed by the state and others are not. Note that a single, semi-state-ordained person can pray using safely generic monotheistic language such as “God,” “Lord God,” “Creator” and “Lord of Lords." Is this the language of the new government-endorsed faith of Carroll County, to the exclusion of other faith traditions?
In other words, the editors at the Sun need to ask if the Carroll County board is defending the separation of church and state or attacking it. Have these state officials become doctrinally "entangled" in this case, saying that some religious doctrines are acceptable and some are not?
So, under liberal equal-access principles, what were the board's legal options? It could have (a) created a forum in which believers in a wide variety of faiths were allowed equal access, including traditional Christians from time to time, with these believers being allowed to pray in a manner consistent with their faiths or (b) it could have banned public prayer, period, thus denying access to all believers equally. What it could not do was create an official, state-endorsed faith with its own prayer language.
After reading this story, all I know is that some people are offended by explicitly Christian prayers and some people are offended by government attempts to endorse one generic form of prayer over other forms that explicitly represent traditional Christian faith.
What else is going on here? I don't know. The editorial team at the Sun does not seem to realize that other liberal principles are at stake in this case.