By Joseph L. Conn
Our nation has more than a few pressing problems.
The economy is in the tank, unemployment is unacceptably high and foreclosures are kicking many families into the street. The gap between the uber-wealthy and everybody else gets wider every day, and many people are worried about how we’ll pay for Social Security and Medicare as more baby boomers join the rolls.
So what’s on the agenda in the U.S. House of Representatives today?
You guessed it: two bills promoting religion on government property.
H.R. 290, the “War Memorial Protection Act” would encourage the use of religious symbols in war memorials. H.R. 2070, the “World War II Memorial Prayer Act of 2011,” would order federal officials to add a prayer recited by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on D-Day to the World War II Memorial on the National Mall.
House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor have scheduled votes on these measures today. Both bills are intended to undercut the constitutional separation of church and state and send a shout-out to the Religious Right and any other voters who like publicly pious politicians.
Both bills are almost certain to pass easily. There are lots of House members who support the Constitution and know these measures are wrong-headed, but nobody wants to appear to be anti-God.
You can imagine the attack advertisements that would be run against you if you voted no. Cue ominous music and a criminal mug-shot-style photo of the House member. Then listen to the ominous bass voice saying, “Congressman Smith voted against God and against our veterans. She may also hate puppies and her mom. Please. Vote against Congressman Smith!”
I hope the bills can be killed when they go to the Senate. If they aren’t, the federal courts will, of course, have the last say about whether they are constitutional.
But that doesn’t make the votes on these bills right. As a matter of fact, their scheduling shows that the priorities and principles of some members of Congress are very, very wrong.
The Framers gave us a Constitution where religion and government are separate. The First Amendment specifically bars Congress from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.”
James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, said it might not be easy in every situation “to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the civil authority.” Writing to the Rev. Jasper Adams in 1832, however, he concluded that “the tendency to usurpation on one side or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded against by an entire abstinence of the government from interference in any way whatsoever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order, & protecting each sect against trespasses on its legal rights by others.”
Would that members of Congress today understood that simple maxim!