News and Notes

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By George Kane  

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

At the end of April, a 5-4 majority on the Supreme Court once again found that a monument on government land that features a Christian symbol does not constitute endorsement of religion.  In the case Salazar v. Buono the Supremes reversed a lower court ruling that the transfer of the land under a metal cross in the Mojave Desert National Preserve to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, specifically to ensure that the cross would not be taken down, was an impermissible government preference for religion.  The ruling sent the case back to the Appeals Court with a clear message:  Keep the cross standing.

That was expected to be the end of the case, but on May 9 there was a plot twist worthy of a network sitcom.  Someone went out into the desert with bolt cutters in the middle of the night and stole the five-foot cross!  The Park Service offered a $125,000 reward for the capture of the thief, but announced they would not replace the cross.  Then, in yet another comic twist, on May 19, the cross reappeared!  But the Park Service decided that it was not properly resurrected, but was only a copy, and not covered by the injunction prohibiting the removal of the original cross.  The Park Service promptly removed the replacement cross.   Now we will see if the entire case will have to be relitigated.  The issue is no longer a cross erected in 1934 by World War I veterans, but whether the government can decide to put up a new cross. 

One encouraging outcome of the case was that the newest Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, voted against the cross.  Prior to her appointment, she had such a short record of Establishment Clause cases that it is not known if she will be a dependable supporter of the separation of Church and State.  Unfortunately, the current nominee, Elena Kagan, arguing the government’s case as the Solicitor General, stated a very weak view of separation when she argued that the transfer to the VFW of a few feet of land under the cross resolved any appearance of government endorsement of religion.  The wall of separation may never recover from replacing Justice Stevens with someone who considers it to be of indifferent value.

The Texas State Board of Education meets every ten years to define curriculum standards which determine how textbooks are written.  The Board completed this work on May 21, setting standards with which textbook companies must comply to have a crack at the 4.8 million student Texas market for the next decade.  Republicans have the majority on the Board, so of course they are writing the standards to extol their dogmas and to downplay the dogmas of the Democratic Party.  This is politically significant because smaller states, which have little influence on textbook writing, often buy the books that were written to Texas’ standards, as the books with the largest printing run are often lower priced.

Among the Republican majority’s objectives is to ensure that school children are taught that America was founded as a Christian nation, and that the founders never intended that there should be a separation between church and state.  They rewrote the relevant curriculum standard, so that it now reads:  Examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America and guaranteed its free exercise by saying that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, and compare and contrast this to the phrase ‘separation of church and state’.  At least in the end they added ‘compare’ to the original proposal, although the standard still implies that the drafters of the first amendment did not want church and state to be separate.

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