Sunday, April 3, 2016

Free Exercise or Unconstitutional Establishment of Faith?

On Tuesday, May 22nd, ISIS claimed responsibility for the organized attacks in Brussels, Belgium. Two explosions took place at the capital's airport and one explosion at a metro station, resulting in 31 people dead and 270 people injured. It was confirmed that two of the bombers were brothers and the other bomber was a suspect in the coordinated terrorist attacks that occurred in Paris last November. ISIS also claimed responsibility for those attacks, which left 130 people dead. In response to the massacres in Brussels, the township supervisor of Shelby, Michigan, Rick Stathakis, posted a short prayer and two verses from the Old Testament of the Bible to serve as a few words of consolation to those who survived the ruthless attacks that day and to everyone else that was affected by them. Specifically, he posted to his personal Facebook page the following quote from Psalm 46:1-2, "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the Earth gives way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea..." In addition to this, he posted a short prayer that read, "Mighty God, shine your radiance into every corner of this dark and fallen world. Send your angel armies into Brussels, and heal the land. Hear the prayers of those who call to you, calm them with Your peace, and soothe the souls of those who lost loved ones in this attack. Amen."

Although Stathakis' intent was simply to provide comforting words and a gesture of support to grieving families and individuals, many people took offense to his post on his public social media page. The critics claimed that because the Shelby Township Supervisor was indeed a government official, the blatantly religious speech was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. One critic, Rafael Saakyan claimed that when one is a government official, it is unconstitutional to promote the advancement of faith in any way, shape, or form. Therefore, Stathakis' words were an obvious violation of the fundamental legal principles of our country. The short prayer and Bible verses that were intended to wish peace and comfort to those who suffered from the massacres, were actually an insult to many. Saakyan alleged that the Shelby Township Supervisor's post was also "highly offensive to his constituents." As a result, Stathakis' religious beliefs should be kept to himself and not in any way interfere with the United States government. Another critic even claimed that Stathakis should only be permitted to keep his prayers between himself and God. While Stathakis' social media post did ignite a great deal of criticism, it also brought in a lot of praise for him staying strong in his faith. One commenter on Facebook wrote, "I praise God for such committed leaders who lead our community with conviction for their faith. The day we can't pray for those who are in dire need is a sad day around the world. God bless you." Another supporter commented on Stathakis' post saying that it is wrong that President Obama can close every speech with, "God Bless America," yet another public official that represents the government is not allowed to post prayers to his personal social media page. Stathakis has not deleted his post and continues to wholeheartedly defend it, asserting that he will continue to exercise his freedom of religion. 

After learning about both sides of the argument, do you believe that the Shelby Township Supervisor is exercising his freedom of religion guaranteed by the United States Constitution or does his post serve as the unconstitutional establishment of religion? I do not believe that Stathakis' action online was a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because he posted to his personal social media page titled, Rich Stathakis - Shelby Township Supervisor. Under his page information is listed his political affiliation, biography, political views, relationship status, work, education, gender, contact information, and religious views. Even though this page can be accessed by anyone because it is not set to private, it is only representative of him as an individual. Therefore, regardless of his career as a government official, he has every right to exercise his freedom of religion like everyone else does. On the other hand, if this Facebook page was specifically made for the town of Shelby, Michigan, and Stathakis was in charge of updating it with posts, then posting the short prayer and two Bible verses would have not been appropriate but rather unconstitutional. In that case, the government would have been clearly promoting the endorsement of faith and thus, failing to maintain the separation between church and state. Furthermore, not only is Stathakis' post completely constitutional, the claim that it is deeply offensive to those who were affected by the attacks in Brussels and to all other constituents is invalid. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that one has the right to not be offended. The United States is characterized by a diversity of religious beliefs and practices, and it is crucial for us to refrain from discriminating against others who follow a different religious faith. Religious tolerance means valuing the freedom of another person to hold beliefs that you know are absolutely wrong. Therefore, instead of taking deep offense to other peoples 's deeply held religious beliefs, we should practice tolerance and understanding. Critics to Stathakis' post should focus on the government official's genuine intent, not the actual content of his post. 


Sedona Boyatzis said...

I agree with Natalie's view of this case in that Stathakis posting of a Facebook status with religious wording and prayer is constitutional. It is widely known that freedom of speech and freedom to express oneself is one of the main advantages of social media sites, particularly Facebook. The only reason why critics are claiming Stathakis' post to be unconstitutional is because he is the Shelby Township Supervisor. However, he is not posting this religiously worded phrase and prayer on the Shelby Township's website, but on his own Facebook profile, which is not managed, edited or supported by the government in any way. Critics are also claiming that his post was offensive as well as interfering with the United States government. If I am not mistaken, no one has outwardly claimed offense to Stathakis' post and the post is not, I argue, interfering with the performance of the United States government.

Jim R said...

I also agree with Natalie's view. This passes the initial test dictated by the Supreme Court.
The context of the speech was to show that the United States cared about its European ally that was facing these attacks. The intent of the speech was to help grieving victims of Brussels recover from the attack. While actions, such as Facebook posts, can be regulated by the government for their religious content, I believe there is a compelling state interest for the United States to override the wall of separation.

In addition, the United States received a similar social outpouring from many other nations in the wake of September 11th as well as the Boston bombings.

Liz S. said...

When I first read Natalie's post, I skimmed over the fact that this post was made to Stathakis' personal facebook page. Had this page not been personal and more of a "celebrity" page where Stathakis or his representatives posted on behalf of Stathakis as the Shelby Township Supervisor, I think that this would most certainly have been an establishment of religion since Stathakis would have used his government role and celebrity as a means to get out his religious message. While the message was general in not referencing a specific god, the prayer certainly favors monotheism since it only references one god. Nevertheless, this post was made on Stathakis' personal account. In his personal account Stathakis is not speaking as Shelby Township Supervisor, but rather as a person wanting to consol people in an extremely tough time. Because Stathakis wrote this post not as the Town Supervisor, but as an individual, his ideas were not those of the town or government, but his own. Therefore I totally agree that Stathakis was just exercising his right to free speech and was not violating the constitution in writing the prayer.

Lauren Caldas said...

I agree with Natalie on this case as well. Due to the fact that this is his personal Facebook page means that it has no ties to his governmental position. If this page was representing him as a political figure then it would be unconstitutional. However, just because it is accessible to the public does not mean that is representative of the government in any way because of his job. Social media imposes an additional level of complications when it comes to speech. Although personal social media pages are in fact personal, they extend out to the entire world. It is important to separate somebody's job or title from their religious views when they are being expressed on a personal Facebook page. This situation is in no way an establishment of religion and Stathakis should keep defending his post because he has every right to express his religious values on a personal social media page.

Sara G. said...

I have to agree with you also. He posted to her personal facebook page and not one associated with the town. Being a government official does not strip a person of their individual rights when they get home from work. As an individual he has the right to freedom of speech like anyone else, when he gets home from work every day he is no longer acting as a government official, but as a free citizen, and is therefore free to say whatever he wants to on his own personal social media accounts. This post would only be unconstitutional if it was posted to a government sponsored or affiliated page, or if he included in the post some reference to the sentiments being presented in the name of the town or by the town supervisor, i.e. "on behalf of Shelby and its Town Supervisor..." but since he is only posting to his own page as an independant individual the post is perfectly legal.