One thing I never expected to see Warner Robins become is a flash point in the debate on the separation of church and state. But over the last few weeks that’s what has seemed to have happened.
It started when someone from out of state attended one of our local high school graduations and was unpleasantly surprised at the religious elements that were incorporated into the public school ceremony. That individual has written letters to local media and the school superintendent objecting to the inclusion of prayer and religious-themed music and speeches in the graduation program and there is a possibility that litigation could follow.
Just a few days after that story broke, another church-state separation brouhaha surfaced in the International City when a letter Mayor Chuck Shaheen had previously published in The Telegraph that included some strong religious references was protested by the activist group Freedom From Religion Foundation. And once again, there is the possibility that the situation could turn into a lawsuit for which you and I (and the other taxpayers in these parts) could end up footing the bill.
Frankly, I don’t see why these kinds of cases aren’t just summarily dismissed. The Constitution states that government shall “make no law” that either establishes a religion or prevents the free exercise thereof. I do not believe there is a law covering what the program for a high school graduation may contain, nor is there one to dictate what kind of letters a mayor can post in the local newspaper. Nor do I think we have any need for such laws.
Yet the basis of lawsuits like these is that these expressions of religion might be unconstitutional. How can someone be in violation of laws that do not exist? Maybe some of my readers who have a better grasp on the finer points of the law will be good enough to explain this to me.
Based on my limited research, our legal system seems to be a little confused about the whole thing as well. The outcomes of such cases seem to be all over the map, and the same behavior that is forbidden in one state is given a judicial OK in another. I guess it’s a good thing that our crime rate is nearly nonexistent, else these kinds of lawsuits might seem like a big waste of time and money. (That was sarcasm, just in case that wasn’t obvious.)
Although I think such lawsuits are frivolous and ridiculous, I also believe this man from North Carolina and the Freedom From Religion Foundation have every right to publicly protest the graduation ceremony and Mayor Shaheen’s letter. I find it disturbing and disappointing that so much of the reaction to their complaints has taken the form of vicious personal attacks and invitations for these offended parties to “stay out of Georgia if they don’t like how we do things here.” It is a shame that so many of us lack the ability to disagree without being disagreeable.
There’s a discussion to be had here and there are reasonable points to be made on either side. A person should not have to leave his religious beliefs at the door when he is elected to a public office, but he should be mindful of the fact that he represents a diverse group of citizens, many of whom do not share his views on religion.
As I’ve said before in this space, my opinion is that government officials ought to remain neutral on religious matters while they are executing their duties as public officials. But that’s just my opinion about what’s right and what’s respectful to everyone concerned, and I wouldn’t try and sue anyone who disagreed with me.
If we have to settle this dispute in court the only real winners will be the lawyers and their fat bank accounts.
Bill Ferguson is a resident of Centerville. Readers can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at nscsense.blogspot.com.