Religion and the public sphere

In Florida, Pasco County Commissioners may have stumbled into a reasonable solution on religious expressions in public places: an open forum where everyone’s expression is welcome.

 The arguments about nativities on public property—and then menorahs, wreaths, trees, and the like—have focused on the legalities. Does the First Amendment prohibit such displays as an impermissible “establishment of religion”? The ways that courts have split hairs on this matter has led to the sad irony that—like several briefs in the Newdow pledge-of-allegiance case in the last year—defenders of religious displays including Christmas trees often defend them as “seasonal” rather than religious, “ritual deism” rather than filled with meaning. How sad.

About three-quarters of the American population is Christian. But in a constitutional democracy, the majority does not get to impose its will on a minority in violation of the minority’s rights. And whatever the arguments over the First Amendment, those who are nonreligious or are members of non-Christian religions have developed the reasonable political expectation that the government avoid marginalizing them through sponsorship of a specific religion, whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Jainism, Wicca, or Rastafarianism. (For more information on the demographics of religion, see the American Religious Identification Survey.)

I’m not going to pretend that there can be a meeting of the minds either about religion or the meaning of the First Amendment. Many, but not all, Christians would be happy with governments that clearly express Christian ideals. Many others, including Christians, see any such expression as violating a preferred wall separating church and state. But there can be a compromise that everyone can live with, even if no one is perfectly satisfied. As in Pasco County, governments can set aside space for any sort of expression by individuals or groups, and as long as the space is constructed and managed to welcome diverse perspectives, we don’t have to worry if part of the space expresses religious ideals by private individuals, not governments. But there’s a trade-off: no religious expressions elsewhere, put up by governments, including displays that are often argued are neutral because they are only “seasonal,” like … um, er, yeah: Christmas trees and wreaths. (Religious expressions in public schools are a separate matter that I won’t take up here. OABITAR and the National Association for Music Education’s position statement on music with sacred texts in public schools are good starting places for that subject.)

Our public spaces do not need to be antiseptic, as long as we agree that there can be a difference between government’s maintaining a space for common use, on the one hand, and sponsoring religious displays, on the other. It requires some to give up their preferred ideal of a sterile public square, but it requires others to give up their preferred vision of a government that actively promotes religious expression. A government that welcomes but does not sponsor a wide range of expression is one that is consistent with the First Amendment and with a country whose population is majority Christian and yet diverse.

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