News and Notes

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By George Kane

Head shot of George, smiling in jacket and tie.

The Supreme Court of the United States took a sledge hammer to the separation of Church and State in March when it refused to hear an appeal by the University of Wisconsin of a suit brought by Badger Catholic, a student organization.  While the university provided routine funding for the student group, it declined to pay for explicitly religious activities, including Catholic Mass and proselytizing campaigns.  Last September, in a truly horrible decision, a three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that the university’s refusal to fund religious activities violated Badger Catholic’s First Amendment right to free speech.

By rejecting the appeal, the Supreme Court does not endorse the lower court’s ruling, but ensures that it remains binding precedent in the Seventh Circuit — Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

The university argued that its rules were reasonable, intended to protect the separation of church and state, and did not enforce any restriction on the free speech rights of the students or their organization.  The Alliance Defense Fund, conducting the litigation for Badger Catholic, asserted that the university was discriminating against that group’s religious activities when it refused to fund them.  The panel of the Seventh Circuit ruled that the university must not discriminate on the basis of content, and must fund religious activities according to the same rules used to decide funding for secular activities.  Once a state university supports student activities that involve leadership development or counseling, it can’t refuse to fund similar activities solely because they are religious in nature.

The activities in question included summer training camps with Roman Catholic Masses, a program to bring nuns to campus to help students determine if they have the calling to be priests, and the distribution of Rosary booklets.

A state university that doesn’t want to provide student fee funds to support religious activities could stop all funding for student activities, but that would be an extreme measure. Most state universities have large projects for funding student groups, and encourage these groups to provide activities and clubs for students.

Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education which supported the University of Wisconsin, said that public colleges and universities affected by the decision would probably come up with a range of steps to comply with the ruling.  She added that the ruling “is not binding in areas other than the Seventh Circuit.”

Here in Minnesota, a Baptist pastor ignited a furor when he opened the state Senate’s legislative session with a stridently sectarian invocation.  Baptist pastor Dennis Campbell repeatedly referred to Jesus, concluding his invocation with, “In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ our savior, we pray.”

This drew a quick rebuke from Sen. Terri Bonoff and other Democrats, who pointed to a Senate policy that prayers in the Senate chamber should be non-denominational.  She lodged her objection with President of the Senate Michelle Fischbach and the Senate’s Majority Leader, Amy Koch, but it quickly became clear that complaints about sectarian invocations would go nowhere in the Republican Party-dominated State Senate.

Koch responded that the invitation sent to pastors already requests that they keep their invocations non-sectarian, but that she would not change this request into a requirement.  She joined other Senate Republicans in asserting that they do not have the right to censor prayers delivered by guest pastors.

However, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the 1983 case Marsh v. Chambers that prayers in legislative sessions are permissible only when they do not favor any particular religion.  Minnesota Atheists contends that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment can only be served by ending the practice of legislative prayer, but that if allowed it must be compatible with the views of the entire community, including the non-religious.  Our public policy position, available on our web site, states “If a representative of Minnesota Atheists should ever have an opportunity to provide the invocation for a government meeting, the invocation should be respectful of the body and its members, and appeal for sound judgment and to universal values such as justice and human rights.”

“Creeping Shariah” is the latest source of panic on Jay Sekulow’s radio show dedicated to the eradication of the wall separating church and state.  He claims that liberals are all soft on Islam because they hate Christianity, and so they are seizing every opportunity to inject Shariah into the deliberations of American courts.

The latest case to draw Sekulow’s ire involves the Islamic Education Center of Tampa, Florida.  Two members who claim that they were improperly removed from the board of trustees have sued, claiming that the requirement in the mosque’s charter document that such disputes be settled by an independent arbiter according to Islamic law was not followed.

There are many issues in the case, which were all resolved according to the laws of the State of Florida.  However, interpreting this clause of the charter document, the court found in favor of the plaintiffs, that the dispute over removing them from the board of trustees must be settled according to Islamic law.  The court is merely enforcing the terms of a contract.

Sekulow is also incensed at objections to Rep. Peter King’s hearings in the House Homeland Security Committee into efforts to recruit American Muslims into acts of terrorist violence.  In fact, I hope that law enforcement is seriously exploring this on a case-by-case basis.  But what is the point of holding public hearings?  They serve no law-enforcement objective, but are intended instead to rouse public sentiment against Muslims in general.  I cannot think of these hearings without the House Unamerican Activities Committee hearings of the 1950s coming to mind.  In both cases, the conclusions of the hearings have been decided before calling the first witness.

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