Pod people: Equal access at 9/11 memorial

Warning: This week's Crossroads -- the GetReligion.org podcast -- contains some material that many faithful readers of this here weblog will find truly shocking. It will not, however, shock those who have been paying close attention to discussions of "equal access" laws and similar church-state skirmishes. You may want to sit down before you continue.

You see, I think it made perfect sense for the mayor of New York City (whatever his motive) not to invite clergy to the dedication rites for the 9/11 memorial site. On top of that, I think this decision improved the religious content of the rite. Thus, I wish that mainstream journalists have paid more attention to the issues -- legal and doctrinal -- surrounding this highly symbolic moment.

Why is that? My logic is closely linked to a point that the Divine Ms. MZ Hemingway made in her discussions of the mini-media storm that surrounded this issue.

You see, there were quite a few clergy, representing some highly symbolic flocks, who could not have taken part in those interfaith rites for reasons of doctrine, confession and conscience. This reality would, of course, have affected the content of said event. It would have skewed it in a politically-correct direction.

So what's the answer to this problem?

In the podcast, I argue that it helps to think of this as a kind of equal-access case.

You see, there are two ways that government officials can handle equal-access cases involving public facilities (such as the decision to rent public facilities to one or more non-profit groups, including religious bodies).

Option No. 1: They can rent their public space to anyone, including religious groups, without discriminating on the basis of the content of their speech and symbolic actions.

Option No. 2: They can REFUSE to rent their public space to anyone, thus avoiding the temptation to discriminate against anyone of the basis of their beliefs.

Is there a third option, one that allows, oh, an after-school environmental group or chess club, but does not allow an evangelical Bible study or a Wiccan book club? Nope. It's supposed to be all or nothing. Legally, "viewpoint discrimination" is supposed to be off limits.

Obviously, there was no way for the 9/11 rites to include everyone in the spectrum of American religion or even a balanced array of clergy -- balanced in terms of the make-up of the US population. On top of that, as MZ stressed, there were already confessional clergy who could not take part, which meant the interfaith rites would be unbalanced no matter what happened.

So what is the other option in this case? That's simple. No clergy at all.

Hallelujah. That's what we ended up with. The result was a genuinely moving event in which citizens offered a wide variety of religious expressions on their own, thank you very much. I would argue that this was a much better expression of faith in American than a kind of politically-correct clergy show in which some voices were raised up and others were, for a variety of reasons, shut down.

Now, did the organizers behind the scenes censor any of the remarks planned by citizens? I do not know. That would be worth checking, for the simple reason that this would be a valid story for additional coverage.

Meanwhile, here's two other questions on this topic from the podcast: Why did so many evangelical leaders even WANT to take part in this interfaith -- as opposed to ecumenical -- event? And thinking about the National Episcopal Cathedral/Kennedy Center event, why didn't any evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox and conservative mainline Protestants jump into the fray and hold their own concert of prayer? Perhaps they could have used the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Moving on. One more topic came up in this week's discussion of religion angles in the mainstream 9/11 coverage.

My Scripps Howard column this past week was about the wave of evangelical Protestant church planting that has taken place in Manhattan in the decade since the twin towers fell. The headline I used when shipping the column to the DC bureau said: "After 9/11 -- Evangelicals (heart) New York?"

Think about it. Meanwhile, here's a key passage:

Here's the statistic that insiders keep citing, drawn from a Values Research Institute (www.nycreligion.info) study: Forty percent of the evangelical Protestant churches in Manhattan were born after 2000, an increase of about 80. During one two-month stretch in 2009, at least one Manhattan church was planted every Sunday. ...

It's impossible to tell this story without discussing the impact of 9/11, noted journalist Tony Carnes, who leads the Values Research Institute team. Rescue workers poured into New York City from across the nation, including volunteers from heartland churches not known for their affection for New York City.

"For the first time, to a large degree, important evangelical leaders realized that New York City was not what they thought it was," said Carnes. "They learned that you didn't need to walk down the street at night looking over your shoulder, worried that you were going to get shot. ...

"They also learned that there were already many evangelical churches here and that they were not weak, struggling and embattled. Many were strong, vital and growing."

Much to think about on this topic as well -- including a bittersweet joke about grits.

So, enjoy the podcast. IMAGE: Official White House photo from the 9/11 memorial event.

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