state-church

Churches fight transportation fee on 1st Amendment grounds

Image from http://www.clevelandleader.com/node/13909

The Alliance Defense Fund, which is known for trying to tear down the wall of separation between church and state, is now claiming that churches in one town do not have to pay a new tax because of church-state separation.

According to the Huffington Post, Mission, Kansas has instituted a new “transportation utility fee” which taxes properties based on the amount of traffic they get.

“It was just a fair way to spread the cost among those who are generating the traffic,” said Mission Mayor Laura McConwell, “to help pay for the roads that you need to bring people in either for your business or for the churches or to people’s homes.”

But some churches are apparently none to happy about the tax and have asked the Alliance Defense Fund, known for fighting for religious symbols on public property and defending convocations at public schools and government meetings, to help them on 1st Amendment grounds, arguing that the 1st Amendment prohibits the government from taxing churches. Again from the Post

“It makes no sense to tax churches and to limit their ability to provide their services, and it does damage to the constitutional separation between church and state,” argues Erik Stanley, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund [...] He acknowledges that church-state separation is generally not an argument made by his conservative Christian law firm; but in this instance, he says “there should be a separation here.”

So apparently the 1st amendment somehow prohibits the government from taxing churches? We could play the Christian Right’s game and bring up the fact that the exact words “separation of church and state” appear nowhere in the Constitution, nor does it explicitly say “The government will not apply transportation utility taxes on churches.” But that would be somewhat disingenuous since the exact wording is not what matters, but the idea behind the words. And no matter how you twist it, the 1st amendment does not even come close to saying churches should pay no taxes. It is ridiculous that churches are exempt from most taxes to begin with. And in this specific case, the transportation fee has absolutely nothing to do with establishing a religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

Hey, maybe that’s their plan: they’re going to claim that “free” in the Constitution doesn’t mean “unrestricted”, but rather “without cost.” If religion should be “free”, then they shouldn’t pay taxes!

The sad thing is, if the Alliance Defense Fund can suddenly become church-state defenders when it suits them, I wouldn’t put it past them to try to twist the word “free” in the Constitution. I’m glad to see the Religious Right finally recognizes the idea of Church-State separation; it’s too bad it’s only when taxes are concerned.

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War on Christmas meets War on Terror

Before the end of 2010, one last story on the craziness involved with the so-called “War on Christmas,” which has apparently now started to overlap with the “War on Terror.”

From AlterNet comes an article by the Nashville City Paper describing how a letter sent by the Tennessee branch of the ACLU was placed on a Homeland Security map as “terrorism events and other suspicious activity.”

The ACLU had the audacity to remind schools that during the end of the year, public schools should not be celebrating Christmas to the exclusion of other religious observances because the First Amendment prohibits the government from endorsing religion. Tennessee Homeland Security’s website’s explanation for why it was placed in that category was exactly that: “ACLU cautions Tennessee schools about observing ‘one religious holiday’.”

So the ACLU reminding schools about what the Supreme Court has found in terms of state-church separation apparently puts them with Bin Laden and the shoe bomber. Browning, a spokesperson for Tennessee’s Department of Homeland Security, said it was a “mistake” to label the ACLU letter as a “suspicious activity”. When contacted about it, the spokesperson claimed that it had been reclassified into their website’s “general information category.”

The story doesn’t end there. The Nashville City Paper checked up on this though and found out the ACLU’s letter had now been classified as “general terrorism news.” The Homeland Security spokesperson explained that “That’s the general news category. It doesn’t have anything to do with terrorism.” (Why not just take the darn thing off the website, then?!)

So at first the ACLU sending out a letter about schools respecting the First Amendment was first described on Tennessee’s Homeland Security site as “terrorism events and other suspicious activity” and is now described as “general terrorism news.” Scary times we live in, especially since being associated with terrorist activity can get you on no-fly lists, among other things.

Hopefully 2011 will be a better year for freethought, atheism, and just all-around. Happy New Year!!

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The Good Friday Turtle stops by (while James Madison does a facepalm)

The yummy treats that the Good Friday Turtle (if he exists) might bring us next year!

Unlike Christmas and Easter, which unfortunately have become widely commercialized and somewhat secularized, Good Friday remains very unambiguously a religious holiday: specifically a Christian one. Very few people would claim that Good Friday is a secular holiday. There is no Good Friday Turtle that crawls around giving presents to good little girls and boys, no exchanging of Turtles chocolate and pecan candies, no TMNT marathons on TV, no playing of music from The Turtles (though “Happy Together” would make a nice holiday song!).

Although it’s nice to think about, no Virigina, there is no Good Friday Turtle. The only reason that someone would treat Good Friday differently than any other day is for religious reasons. It is a religious observance of the day that some guy named Jesus, who only some people believe was the son of their god, died on a cross before going to hell for a couple of days, after which he miraculously (magically) rose from the dead to go back to heaven. All this trouble just so daddy would agree to let some people up into heaven, while leaving the rest burn for all eternity.

Personally, and for the record, I like the Good Friday Turtle idea much better, but the Constitution says people have a right to believe that whole God-sent-his-son-to-be-tortured-to-death mumbo jumbo. The Constitution also tells us however that government cannot endorse one religion over another. So when the Shelby County Clerk in Tennessee reportedly closes on Good Friday, or the state of Wisconsin recognizes Good Friday as a holiday, these government entities certainly seem to be celebrating a Christian-only holiday.

So what’s the harm in these and other government agencies closing for Good Friday? What’s wrong with people having a day off or people having to wait until Monday to renew their licences? Giving this strictly religious holiday preferential treatment shows an official bias in favor of that religion (Christianity) over other religions or non-religion.

Despite what many religious folk claim, the founding fathers did not intend the US to be a Christian nation, unless you think the entire Constititional Convention did a collective facepalm once they realized they had accidentally left “The United States is a Christian nation” out of the Preamble. Doesn’t seem likely to me.


A photo of James Madison after realizing he and other founding fathers forgot to establish the United States as a Christian nation in the Constitution??

The country was intentionally founded with freedom of religion in mind. People may celebrate their religious holidays if they so please, but government is not and should not be involved. Holidays of other religions besides Christianity are generally not observed or usually even mentioned by government bodies, and this is the way it should be. An occasional nod to Jewish or Muslim holidays may occur, but they normally don’t shut down government just because some religion somewhere thinks a given day is important to their deity of choice. And that’s the way it should be.

Government agencies get around this issue for Christmas because it has now taken on a largely (if not predominately) non-religious life of its own. Few would dispute this fact, although many might justifiably object to it. The main objections to Christmas arise when government steps over the line and starts inserting Christian words and symbols into what has become a secular celebration. Easter has followed Christmas along the path to secularization to a lesser extent (with pagan and secular symbols such as the Easter Bunny, colored eggs, marshmallow Peeps); but since most government agencies are closed on weekends anyway, the issue of officially recognizing Easter by closing offices normally doesn’t come up.

But when government or government-funded agencies (schools, libraries, etc.) declare Good Friday to be a holiday and shut down in observance of that Holy Day, they are very clearly moving from secular celebration to religious observance. That’s something that government isn’t allowed to do. It wouldn’t be an honest argument to claim that Good Friday is just part of some sort of long weekend of a secularized Easter, since Christians obviously must separate Good Friday from Easter enough to want a separate day to observe it. Good Friday is clearly, in practice and by definition, a Christian-only holiday. One that most religions don’t recognize, and some people object to. I don’t want my government telling me or my fellow citizens (whether child or adult) that one religion’s primitive idea of human sacrifice to appease the gods is something to be respected and revered. And the Constitution has my back on this one. Religions can teach this, but governments can’t endorse it by saying Good Friday is a holiday.

Unless The Good Friday Turtle stops by Tennessee, Wisconsin, or elsewhere next year, bringing candies and presents for all, I expect government to drop Good Friday as a holiday and get back to the business of running the country, not promoting religion.

Source of Turtles image: http://www.candyfavorites.com/i/t_3822.jpg and facepalm image: http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/facepalm.jpg

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