Embracing Exclusivity: How civic religion at inauguration abridges religious freedom

Michael Newdow is an American attorney and emergency medicine physician. He is best known for his efforts to ban recitations of the current version of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools in the United States because of its inclusion of the phrase “under God”. Most recently, he filed a lawsuit to prevent references to God and religion from being part of President Obama’s inauguration. You can read Dr. Newdow’s legal briefs and other materials at http://​www​.restorethepledge​.com/

When we asked him if he had any editorials he would be willing to share with us, he forwarded the following essay prepared in advance of the January 2009 inauguration. While you may not agree with Dr. Newdow’s theology, his views on religious equality are thought provoking.  What do you think?  Post your comments below.  Editor


By Michael Newdow, Esq.
Posted on ReligiousLiberty​.TV with the permission of the author.

In 1892, the 1/8th black Homer Plessy was convicted of violating Louisiana law by sitting in a “Whites only” railroad car. He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where his conviction was upheld by an 8–1 margin. “A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races,” wrote the Court, “ … has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races.”

The lone dissenter in that case was Justice John Marshall Harlan, who refused to buy into the majority’s logic. Although it was true that whites and blacks were treated “equally” in a literal sense (since the law prohibited whites from riding in colored cars just as much as the opposite), Justice Harlan focused upon the “real meaning” of the legislation: “that colored citizens are so inferior and degraded that they cannot be allowed to sit in public coaches occupied by white citizens.”

It took fifty-eight years for the Supreme Court to recognize that Justice Harlan’s view was correct. In Brown v. Board of Education, the “real meaning” of “separate but equal”– i.e., that the nation’s white majority was using the government to affirm its self-proclaimed racial superiority – was put to an end. As a result, the whole of American society changed, so much so that we now have an African American poised to become the nation’s president. Surely, Barack Obama would never have been elected had Plessy remained the law of the land.

And yet not everyone has learned the lesson of Brown, including, of all people, Barack Obama. The message that “we” in the majority are “better” than some minority to which our Constitution guarantees equality is once again about to be sent. This time, rather than with race, it is in the realm of religion, as Mr. Obama plans to continue the practice, first introduced in 1937, of having clergy espouse the view that belief in God is superior to disbelief.

Mr. Obama plans to continue the practice, first introduced in 1937, of having clergy espouse the view that belief in God is superior to disbelief.

The hypocrisy of this “tradition” might best be seen by simply reading from his inaugural committee’s website. There one can read of a “commitment to … ensure that as many Americans as possible … will be able to come together to unite the country and celebrate our common values and shared aspirations.” With the official theme being “Renewing America’s Promise,” Mr. Obama is quoted for the proposition that “in America, we rise or fall as one nation and one people. That sense of unity and shared purpose is what this Inauguration will reflect.” Thus, in this inauguration, there is alleged “a commitment to organizing activities that are inclusive.”

Mr. Obama, a former constitutional law professor, is surely aware that (as Justice Scalia has written) “government may not … lend its power to one or the other side in controversies over religious … dogma.” After all, he was teaching at the University of Chicago Law School when the Supreme Court instructed the nation that “the religious liberty protected by the Constitution is abridged when the State affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer.” More importantly, having undoubtedly reviewed Justice Harlan’s dissent in Plessy on numerous occasions, the President-elect has to realize that the “real meaning” of such formal espousals of God’s supposed existence is to brand believers as “superior” and Atheists as “inferior” citizens, in precisely the same way as the “separate but equal” laws did barely half a century ago.  Actually, that’s incorrect. “Separate but equal” at least pays lip service to the notion of equality. There is nothing equal when the government explicitly chooses to place one belief system above another. It is only Monotheism that is provided with an official platform at the nation’s premier celebration.

There is nothing equal when the government explicitly chooses to place one belief system above another.

Does Mr. Obama really think that this divisive religious claim helps “to unite the country?” What message does he believe is conveyed when he asserts that proclaiming the glory of God is a “common value?” What could possibly lead him to argue that a “sense of unity and shared purpose” results from intruding into the inauguration a religious ideology that, like every religious ideology, is divisive? He’s a graduate of Harvard Law School, who must have reviewed the text and the history of the First Amendment numerous times. How can such a learned man reckon himself “inclusive” by paying homage to a Supreme Being denied by millions of those he represents?

Two months ago, when the American people chose Barack Obama to serve in the highest office in the land, it seemed that Homer Plessy’s dream had finally been realized. America, we thought then, truly stands for the justice and equality guaranteed in its Constitution. Yet, in a few days, as our new president steps up to the inaugural podium, the reality will be that government-sanctioned favoritism – now for religion, instead of race – will continue. Perhaps some day, as the leader of our nation swears “to preserve, protect and defend” the document upon which Homer Plessy’s dream was founded, he or she won’t simultaneously be ripping it … and us … apart.

2 Comments

  1. While Newdow’s reasoning has some merit, the fact remains that atheists have no apologetic for moral behavior like those who are motivated by a religion have. I disagree with his premise, that atheism is equal to or superior to religion.

    It is true that all people are created to be free and equal, whether they are black or white, slave or free, educated or uneducated. Yet we can see that they are not free and equal because of differences of opportunity and choice. Tyranny and oppression, political corruption and natural disasters, and other circumstances have limited opportunity and choice for some people.

    But arguing that philosophically there is nothing superior about religion in contrast to godlessness is not a good parallel. For instance, care for the weak and helpless is accepted as normal in US society today, but it is a Christian principle that was not a given before Christ. The sick and weak have long been despised and rejected, either left to die or outright killed even.

    While there has been injustice in the name of religion, it is against the principles of the gospel. There is no “guiding light” for atheists that offers moral instruction or a foundation for making moral decisions. I am uncomfortable accepting Newdow’s premise.

  2. While Newdow’s reasoning has some merit, the fact remains that atheists have no apologetic for moral behavior like those who are motivated by a religion have. I disagree with his premise, that atheism is equal to or superior to religion.

    It is true that all people are created to be free and equal, whether they are black or white, slave or free, educated or uneducated. Yet we can see that they are not free and equal because of differences of opportunity and choice. Tyranny and oppression, political corruption and natural disasters, and other circumstances have limited opportunity and choice for some people.

    But arguing that philosophically there is nothing superior about religion in contrast to godlessness is not a good parallel. For instance, care for the weak and helpless is accepted as normal in US society today, but it is a Christian principle that was not a given before Christ. The sick and weak have long been despised and rejected, either left to die or outright killed even.

    While there has been injustice in the name of religion, it is against the principles of the gospel. There is no “guiding light” for atheists that offers moral instruction or a foundation for making moral decisions. I am uncomfortable accepting Newdow’s premise.

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