(Atheist challenging Knoxville police plaque: July 2017 )
Background for this article: The Freedom from Religion Group is pushing for the removal of a beloved plaque with a Bible verse at Knoxville Police Department headquarters. The group seeks to remove all "religious" references from public view.
The Bible verse they find so offensive is Romans 8:31 "What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us? "
Rights vs Romans 8:31
It is difficult to have an honest discussion about rights with anyone who has much background in the philosophy of law or politics, let alone someone from the streets who has no formal instruction on the subject. Most discussions seem to be unhinged from any historical context or any historical moorings. People today discuss “rights” in the language of the 21st century, and with the passion of adolescent experiencing their first love but have no understanding of what they speak.
Any attempt to describe, or explain, the existence of a human right must presuppose some corresponding obligation or duty. If one person has a right, then other persons must have a duty to respect that right. It is the legitimate function of government to enforce that concept. Whether there is a right derives from our understanding of what it means to be human and the relationships we have to other humans and to human-created institutions. For our purposes here, we focus only on the philosophical foundations of Western Political thought, which are the basis of American Law and government. Most current discussions (i.e. removal of a benign verse from the Bible from a non-public area in the Police Department) are taking place in that context.
There are two broad categories of rights in Western political philosophy; (1) Natural rights which are deemed to attach at birth to all people and are considered “endowed” by our Creator (see Declaration), and legal rights which are creations of the state (government). It is the legitimate function of government to “secure” (protect) those rights in the former category. Legal rights, being created by the authority of the state, may likewise be subsequently limited, eliminated by the same authority that created them. Inalienable (natural, endowed) rights always trump legal (government-created) rights.
While there is a right to practice one’s religion according to the dictates of one’s own conscience (see 1st Amendment) without government interference, There is NO right in a person to be in civil society, which operates according to generally accepted principles which may, or may not have “religious” underpinnings, while simultaneously having government protection to be unaffected by religion. That is, in a word, absurd.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says this, in pertinent part: “ Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, nor preventing the free exercise thereof.” When the First Amendment was drafted, it applied only to the U.S. Congress. As such, state and local governments could abridge the Free Exercise Clause as long as there was no similar provision in the state constitution. In 1940, the Supreme Court held in Cantwell v. Connecticut that, due to the Fourteenth Amendment, the Free Exercise Clause is enforceable against state and local governments.
This was never an issue until very recently when a small minority of people felt that any public reference to religion in general, or to a particular religion, when done by government or on government property should be prohibited. The Supreme Court has not been necessarily consistent by one of the most recent cases (2005, Van Orden v Perry) held that displaying a monument inscribed with the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas State Capital does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Chief Justice Rehnquist, writing for the plurality, observed that "Such acknowledgments of the role played by the Ten Commandments in our Nation's heritage are common throughout America." There you have it. It is part of our history. Furthermore, citing an earlier Supreme Court case, he stated that '"[We] find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence." Id. at 684 (citing Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 313–14 (1952))
It is impossible for private parties (citizens or corporations) to violate these amendments, and all lawsuits alleging constitutional violations of this type must show how the government (state or federal) was responsible for the violation of their rights. If there is no “state action” then there is no violation of the Constitution. If a sign, monument, plaque, etc is paid for my private funds, and is merely displayed in public place, then the state’s role is passive, not active. No state “action”, ergo, no grounds for a lawsuit. In the case of Knoxville Police Department, and the display of this single non-judgmental, encouraging Bible verse, it is ludicrous for the Freedom From Religion group to allege any constitutional wrong-doing. It is akin to killing a gnat with a shotgun. Shame on the “leadership” of Knoxville’s political machine to cave in without a fight.
In logic, as in in life, tradition and status quo are presumptively valid. Things are the way they are for a reason, even if we may not apprehend that reason. We are free to challenge status quo, whether or not we understand the reasons but it is usually and probably imprudent to do so without careful consideration of the implications. When Jefferson penned the Declaration, he articulated this idea thusly: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
In the debate today about removing some bible verse from a non-public area of a “public” building it is interesting to note the total reversal of this mindset articulated by Jefferson. After all, who was caused to “suffer” let alone “suffer evil” by viewing this display. In our current controversy, the person who was “offended” was unauthorized to BE in that place without escort. And what kind thin-skinned, shallow, person is so emotionally weak that the mere sight of an uplifting, encouraging (to others) statement would evoke such a reaction? Certainly not the kind person to which Jefferson was referring.
In any healthy society, the prevailing notion should be that individual values and community values are not at cross purposes. They do not have to be in conflict with one another. In fact, the very notion of “community” includes both “common” and “unity”. In other words, when the collective groups shares common values, and goals, and a sense of commitment to move forward towards those goals in unity, there is a great synergistic effect that virtually guarantees a positive outcome for all. When we (collectively) re-prioritize our individual goals, in accordance with the community standards and values, then what is good for me is also good for society, and visa versa.
I teach a college course in Administration of Justice where this central theme is described in a variety of police/community scenarios. When an individual joins an organization (i.e. police department) and joins with that organization to achieve those “corporate” goals, the individual also receives affirmation and a sense of individual achievement because those goals and values are also those of the individual. It works that way in civil society as well. But when people begin operating in isolation, or in contradiction to the group, and insist on their individual agenda at the expense of the organizational (corporate) agenda, then there will be increased tension, conflict, and disorder. In the United States, until recently, the courts restrained themselves from “making law” which is clearly outside of their constitutional authority. Of late, however, the court has embraced issues, and created law in favor of a minority of citizens, by trashing tradition and precedent, and at the expense of the majority. The Court is, sadly, playing outside of their sandbox, with destructive social consequences. Politics has eroded the “rule of law” that has helped America survive a civil war, and two World Wars, numerous economic challenges, and a host of other threats to our form of government. “Political Correctness”, however will probably be our undoing.
John Sterling, MA, JD