January 5, 2009

Center for Inquiry on Latest Newdow Lawsuit

RobertsImage via WikipediaThe Center for Inquiry is a valuable freethought organization that receives considerably less attention in the atheist blogosphere than groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation or Americans United for Separation of Church and State. I am pleased to see that they have a new blog, fittingly titled Free Thinking, and welcome the contributors. I do, however, have to disagree with the conclusion reached by one of the contributors, Derek Araujo, in a recent post about Obama's inauguration.

Araujo had the following to say about the recent lawsuit by Michael Newdow and others to stop the inaugural benediction and prevent Justice Roberts from adding the words "so help me God" during Obama's oath:
Although CFI has taken no official stance on the issue, I believe this lawsuit is a mistake. The community of nonbelievers can and should initiate a public debate about whether religious symbolism is proper in government ceremonies. That debate should be spirited, unconstrained, and freewheeling. When it comes to filing lawsuits, however, intelligent strategy is paramount.

For reasons I will not go into here, the merits of the case are not especially compelling. In addition, any victory in district court would face appeals before an appellate court – and possibly a Supreme Court – that have been packed with conservative judges and justices. Many of the sitting judges and justices have a less-than-robust view of church-state separation. They could use this case to hand down opinions that harm church-state separation. Perhaps the best result nonbelievers can expect is for the court to reject the case on procedural grounds. This could happen if the plaintiffs fail to establish their legal standing to bring the suit.
I believe that this post raises some important issues, and while I disagree with the conclusion reached, it would be a mistake to dismiss what is being said entirely. I have two questions for Araujo or those who agree with his conclusion.

First, if the lawsuit is a mistake, how are we to initiate the public debate which the author acknowledges as necessary. Like it or not, a lawsuit of this nature will get attention and provoke debate. I'm honestly not sure how else this could be accomplished. Maybe this simply reflects my lack of creativity, but I would like to hear equally effective alternatives if they exist.

I believe that Araujo is absolutely correct that the odds of this lawsuit succeeding are minimal. Then again, if the goal is to provoke debate, I'm not sure why this matters. This brings me to my second question: If we back away from protecting church-state separation because we fear what the Supreme Court might do, haven't we already conceded? I understand the author's concern that taking a weak case forward could actually makes things worse for those who value church-state separation. Still, the alternative of simply allowing the government to violate the Constitution does not seem like a compelling choice to me.

I believe that Araujo fundamental point is that we need to be selective about what battles we fight. On this point, I do not disagree. I simply wonder how much more of this god nonsense we can tolerate without our complacency becoming part of the problem.

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