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Finally Some Real Progress

I’m not entirely sure that American Atheists have made any changes to their tactics, but I saw a smattering of stories today that show they are much more in line with my views on freedom of religion than I have perceived them to be in the past, at least in these cases.

The first one is this essay/article. (Please note that you can make a donation to the effort, and I am happy to inform you that I just did so.) In case you aren’t inclined to click, the basic idea is that they feel, not so much that religious groups are favored by the tax code, but that secular groups are penalized, and I couldn’t agree more. I feel that groups like American Atheists should be treated as religious organizations and be entitled to the same hands off approach to the exercise of religious beliefs (specifically the complete lack thereof) the government affords churches. In fact, I don’t think the government should charge any applicants a fee. They ask that all nonprofit organizations be treated the same.

What I usually see atheists demanding is that churches be taxed, so I’m glad to see a different approach here. The power to tax is the power to destroy, and I think that having churches and secular groups be tax exempt furthers the separation of church and state, rather than closing the gap*.

The second story is that rather than try to have a monument to the 10 Commandments removed in front of a Florida courthouse, they demanded to be allowed to add their own. I’ve always been appalled in cases where the plaintiffs contend that religious freedom means no religion in the public square, rather than no favoritism. It often seems like they are trying to say that we have freedom of non-religious speech only. I’m not as inline with their comments on this one, but I love the outcome. In fairness, the president of American Atheists said just what I loath:

The monument emphasizes the role secularism has played in American history, and the Bible quotes make it clear that the Ten Commandments are not the ‘great moral code’ they’re often portrayed to be. Don’t kill, don’t steal? Of course. But worship only the Judeo-Christian god? That conflicts overtly with the very first right in the Bill of Rights, freedom of religion.

No it doesn’t Dave, your comments conflict with the very first right in the Bill of Rights, freedom of speech, government is prohibited from establishing a religion or prohibiting it’s free exercise, which I have always thought is pretty clear. He seems to be of a mind that that means religious speech is not protected. Ken Lukin, American Atheists Regional Operations Director, is roughly on the same page I am:

When it comes to government and religion, there are only two ways to show equality: all or none, I am glad that Bradford County has chosen to show equality and will be a great example for other cities in Florida and the United States.

I would argue that the First Amendment prohibits the ‘none’ part of his quote. They cannot establish a state religion or favor one over another, but neither can they prohibit speech and expression based on it’s religious nature. There is no sense in the common assertion that less is more. Remove the monument? No, no, add other monuments that add to the discussion, don’t remove them to quash it. The Community Men’s Fellowship (whatever that is. Don’t know, don’t care) made their own statement, also declaring the matter a victory, not for them, but for everyone:

We want you all to remember that this issue was won on the basis of this being a free speech issue, so don’t be alarmed when the American Atheists want to erect their own sign or monument. It’s their right.

I couldn’t agree more. Hopefully this is the tack that American Atheists will use in other lawsuits, they could save us all some money, time, and strife, and just endeavor to restrict their lawsuits to actual church/state separation issues, not issues of where government has permitted free speech of a religious nature, and not endorsed or banned others from also expressing their ideas and beliefs. I think Bradford County is on to something by declaring a “free speech forum” where monuments could be erected at private expense. It doesn’t try to limit free speech, it seeks to provide an area in which to concentrate free speech, a place where it’s sure to bump against other speech. It’s basic chemistry, which I would expect most atheists to realize, mix some chemicals together, apply heat, and study the reaction. All to often we have people on both sides of the issue who think we can learn more by preventing reactions, instead of facilitating them. Go figure.

UPDATE: The monument is now installed. I want to say again how refreshing this is, instead of trying to prohibit religious speech (because it’s somehow distinct from other speech) in the public forum, we now have more speech, not less.

There are no constitutional problems with groups erecting a cross memorial on public property unless other groups are prohibited from doing the same. Having said that, those groups should be accountable for maintaining such monuments, when the American Atheists bench starts to disintegrate it needs to be on them to fix it, remove it, or replace it.

There are actually a range of circumstances where other groups could be prohibited, one possibility is when there is a lack of space, in which case these types of things should be for a limited time frame. Another possibility is using a lottery system to allocate spaces. there are tons of options that would maximize speech of all types instead of eliminating or minimizing certain classes of speech.

*Having nonprofit status requires that organizations, religious or otherwise, not endorse or support candidates, but limit themselves to issues only, among other political involvement restrictions. They get to be free from the heavy, and destructive, hand of taxation and church and state become as minimally interdependent upon each other as we reasonably can manage.

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