Defending Separation of Church and State in Difficult Situations

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peal...
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale in 1800. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my pet peeves - and I have many - concerns the manner in which some Christians in the United States often adopt a stance of willful ignorance about the point of church-state separation whenever it suits them. I recognize that ignorance of such matters is widespread, but I suspect that many of these Christians really do know better and would want church-state protections when beneficial to their cause.

Hank Fox (A Citizen of Earth) brings us a recent example of what I'm taking about in his post, Grieving Mother Mistreated by Heartless Atheists. A mother who lost her son erected a memorial including crosses on city property, a humanist group protested the church-state violation, the city council ordered the crosses to be removed, and the humanist group is now being criticized around the Internet (with much of the criticism coming from other atheists/humanists/secularists).

If this sounds familiar to you, it should. We have seen similar scenarios play out countless times. It is fascinating to see how quick many atheists, humanists, and secularists are to join the criticism of those who seek to preserve the separation of church and state. It is almost as if they are more concerned about public relations than church-state separation.

Hank provides an excellent summary of this particular situation in Southern California, and much of what he says applies in many similar situations:

And as far as I know, every single person in the humanist and atheist community respects the rights of family members to express that grief in any way they care to, and as long as they care to, privately, among their friends and family, and on their own property. Additionally, they can carry out ceremonies in their church ranging from simple to extravagant. They can participate in funerary processions along public roadways, and most of us will respectfully give way. They can place monuments in cemeteries that will last hundreds of years. They can even travel to the public site of the loved one’s death, and linger there in respect and sadness.

We all understand that every grieving person, mom or not, shares those same rights. But no matter how much you’re hurting, your private grief is not acceptable justification for using public land for a private religious display.

He's absolutely correct. Grief, as painful as it is, does not entitle one to break the law. We can feel bad for this mother and attempt to offer support to her and others in grief in many legal ways. We can encourage her to work through her grief in all the ways Hank mentioned that stop short of erecting religious displays on public property.

In this particular case, the city council acknowledged that the crosses violated church-state separation and ordered their removal. So is this a case of "mean atheists" tormenting a grieving mother like many want us to believe? No, not at all.

The principle at stake here is bigger than one grieving mother. It’s about equality, equal protection on the public stage. The fact is, the mother has no legal right to put a cross there. She never did. It was against the law from the beginning. It was only because this was an expression of the Christian faith, and because of our innate respect for mothers, especially in this tough situation, that it got a pass as long as it did. The authorities deliberately looked away … until they were reminded that we can’t afford to allow our government to play favorites based on private religious principles, even those of grieving mothers.

Bravo to Hank for providing such a thoughtful and humane response. I'll be bookmarking his post for future reference about how to summarize the relevant issues raised by these unfortunately common scenarios. I sincerely hope that the atheists, humanists, and/or secularists who are criticizing those who seek to preserve the separation of church and state in situations like this will take the time to reflect on Hank's words.