Sunday, October 27, 2013

Another Establishment Issue...

There have been many tricky court cases involving the establishment clause in our nation’s history. Recently in October of this year, a new situation has been brought to light. Records have shown that in the city of Cincinnati, there has been a 51 percent increase in homicides from 2012 to 2013. This is disturbing news for many and as a result, community members will participate in multiple prayer walks involving fourteen different communities in the area. The prayer walks themselves are not the issue at hand, but the fact that the Cincinnati Police Department issued a statement, along with several pastors in the community, inviting all citizens to participate in the prayer walks. In response to this invitation by the Police Department, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) wrote a letter in which they openly criticize the police department for their support of the initiative. The FFRF used many strong and critical statements in their letter such as the phrase, “Public officials should get off their knees and get to work.”

The issue, which the FFRF states, is the actions of the CPD conflicting with the first amendment and the rights of the citizens. The first amendment prohibits the establishment of a religion and the FFRF holds the view that the establishment of religion is indeed occurring here. In the FFRF’s written letter, Andrew L. Seidel states, “It is a fundamental principle of the Establishment Clause jurisprudence that the government cannot in any way promote, advance, or otherwise endorse religion.” The statement comes from the Supreme Court’s commonly held stance that there must be neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and non-religion. According to the FFRF, the CPD’s support of these prayer walks is not only coercive, but offends and excludes citizens who do not believe prayer to be the proper response to this situation. The letter asks that the police department responds to the letter with the changes they are enacting to remedy these constitutional violations.

I believe the FFRF makes valid points and seems persuasive in regards to its interpretation of the first amendment. It correctly cited the Supreme Court’s decision in the Epperson v Arkansas case in which a law that forbade the teaching of evolution in a public school was declared unconstitutional. In the majority opinion the court mentioned the fact that the government must remain neutral in regards to religion. Clearly in the case at hand, the government represented by the CPD, has declared its support of a religious cause by involving itself in the invitation. One might even cite the Lemon test, that has been commonly used in establishment cases, stating that this clearly violates the second part of the test forbidding a promotion of religion over non-religion. The FFRF also incorporates alarming statistics regarding religious areas and non-religious areas. Among the statistics, the FFRF states that the least religious areas of the world have the lowest reported homicide and violence rates. Therefore, people should see this declaration of prayer in order to alleviate violence as a ridiculous and unsupported notion. The FFRF seems convincing, along with the majority of establishment cases that have be ruled in concordance with its opinion, however I am not persuaded.

I see this issue as an opportunity to return the original intentions of the founders of this nation. I’m persuaded by the fact that, despite the very Christian undertones written into the constitution, the fathers were concerned with religious freedom for all. I read the first amendment as an invitation to people of all religious convictions and therefore as a constitutionally proscribed positive relationship between the government and religion.  Justice Reed makes a compelling argument while dissenting in McCollum v Board of Education. The case concerns an Illinois law allowing religious groups to come into the public school to teach religion for a half hour during the school day. The court ruled this unconstitutional even though students were not coerced into attending these religious classes. Justice Reed states, “The prohibition of enactments respecting the establishment of religion do not bar every friendly gesture between church and state.” In this case, the CPD is merely a “connector” allowing multiple like-minded groups the ability to come together. It is important to note that the CPD, in the two walks that have been held thus far, have not participated as uniformed police offers in the walks. This shows the CPD’s commitment to its governmental separation from religious support. In addition, in more recent cases involving the first amendment the Supreme Court has chosen to focus on the idea expressed in the first part of the Lemon Test, that a secular purpose must be present. Clearly the focus of the CPD’ invitation is the prevention or curtailment of crime. The CPD’s hope is that these prayer walks may bring the community together, encourage peace, and discourage violence. Furthermore, if we must judge sincerity, we may consider the fact that members of the CPD have not even participated in the prayer walks as governmental officers.

While I do think the FFRF makes valid points, and I think that the Supreme Court would indeed side with the FFRF here, that decision seems wrong to me. I agree with Justice Rehnquist in his opinion that the wall of separation must be put aside. We must destroy the hostility that exists between the government and religion. Were the FFRF to win this case before the Supreme Court I think those religious individuals who live in America should be concerned for their religious freedom. What are your opinions?

8 comments:

Liz L. said...

One could argue that, if the government supports the Freedom From Religion Foundation, it is participating in a form of religious establishment, because it promotes non-religion over religion. However, neutrality does not exist. The government either “supports” religion by allowing people to practice it or limits it by encouraging non-religion. Prayer walks are not a religion and do not infringe upon the rights of others. Thus, the prayer walks should be permitted.

Sayeh B said...

I agree with Dylan in this case. I would have a problem with the prayer walks if 1) the CPD actively participated in them, which they don't; 2) if they were advertised as prayer walks for one religion in particular, which they also are not; and 3) if on these walks, people were forced to participate in religious activities that they don't necessarily support, which I don't think actually happens. The FFRF does make some legitimate points, but I think it's important to recognize that the prayer walks are completely voluntary and not facilitated by the government. But I do believe that perhaps the FFRF shouldn't have expressed their support explicitly for these prayer walks because this could possibly be viewed as a form as endorsement or establishment.

Gabby D. said...

I don't really think it is viable to argue that the government "supports" the FFRD, as they are a private group. I do not think the walks violate the Establishment clause as they have a clear secular purpose of raising morale and fostering community spirit. However, I do not think the Cincinnati Police Department should endorse this walk, as the CPD is an agent of the government and that could be seen as entanglement and the government supporting religion: therefore violating the Establishment clause.

Nicole D said...

I agree with Gabby, I do not think that the FFRF is disputing the fact that the prayer walks should be allowed. If a collection of pastors and citizens want to advocate for it, by all means it is probably a great morale booster for the community. However, the fact that the police department is specifically advocating for it seems to be an entanglement of religion and government. I think it would yield the same results if well known individual members of the police department added their names to a list of people inviting community members to participate. This would advertise the event while avoiding getting a government sponsored program specifically involved.

Blair said...

I also agree with Dylan, I do not see a problem with the police department promoting the walks. Like Gabby said, the walks are to raise morale and unite under an unfortunate situation. It is also a situation that the police department directly deals with and I don't think that making the walks voluntary is establishing religion. I see where the FFRF is coming from but i think the prayer aspect is more about the social and legal phenomenon of homicide than to promote religious beliefs over non-religious beliefs.

Jennie M. said...

I agree that the walks should be allowed. The increase in homicides in Cincinnati is alarming and I understand why people feel like they need to react. I also found some parts of the FFRF arguments unpersuasive. Just because the police officers helped advertise these walks does not mean that is all they are doing to counteract the homicides in the city. It is their job to be concerned about these issues and while I do not think the police should have been a part of the advertising process because they represent the government, I do not see a strong example of establishment here.

Mike Spear said...

I did not have to read very far into this post to formulate a concrete opinion. I feel that the police department, and the entire state, has a secular purpose to promote the prayer walks. There is no question that the motivation for the walks was equally as secular as is was religious. I believe there is a great deal of turmoil in the state and I feel it is an exceptional idea to promote the walks in hope to protect both religious and non-religious individuals who could potentially be gunned down in the streets. I have no sympathy for the Freedom From Religion organization and feel that their stance against the state's support of the walks was grossly counterintuitive.

Dan W said...

I agree with the distinction that Gabby makes. I believe that there is a legitimate secular purpose to the prayer walks and thus they should be allowed, yet they should not be sponsored by the public law enforcement. Instead, the law enforcement should turn the leadership and advertising for the prayer walks over to a private church or group, and focus instead on providing security during the walk and superior law enforcement in general to prevent more murders.