Is Americans United anti-Christian? Of course not.
We exist to defend the constitutional separation of church and state, a principle that protects alike Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, non-believers and persons with all sorts of opinions about religion. But you’d never know that by listening to some of our opponents.
In Hays County, Texas, the Commissioners Court had a habit of opening most of its sessions with Christian prayers. A local resident called AU to object to this sectarian practice, so our legal department sent along a letter on the subject.
“We write to inform you,” AU attorneys said, “that your prayer practice is in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and ask that you bring your prayer practice into constitutional compliance by either ending the practice altogether or by revising your prayer policy to allow only nonsectarian prayer.”
Yesterday, local clergy and other citizens descended on the court to heatedly demand that the Christian prayers continue. Jonathan Saenz of the Liberty Institute, a Religious Right legal outfit, weighed in as well.
According to the Austin Statesman, Saenz said the organization would represent the county in any lawsuit for free.
“Let’s be honest, we know what this is about,” he said. “These people don’t want the name of Jesus uttered.”
When Saenz says “these people,” I think he means us. And he’s just plain wrong.
What we want is simple. We want the Hays County Commissioners Court to obey the law, honor the U.S. Constitution and respect the religious diversity in America. This has nothing whatsoever to do with hostility toward any faith.
If you need additional evidence of AU’s even-handedness and commitment to principle, you might check another news development.
The Albuquerque Journal reported yesterday that the National Park Service is moving a large Buddhist shrine from the Petroglyph National Monument in New Mexico. Americans United and others had asked the Park Service to do so, noting that maintenance of a religious shrine in a public park raises serious constitutional issues.
According to the Journal, attorneys for the U.S. Department of the Interior agreed with our take, and the Buddhist stupa is being transferred today to private property.
Needless to say, AU has no hostility whatsoever toward the Buddhist faith. We just think public parks ought to welcome everyone and not appear to endorse one religious tradition over others.
I wonder if the folks in Texas who are such ardent advocates of Christian prayer at county commissioners’ meetings would be as enthusiastic about maintaining a Buddhist shrine in New Mexico.
Somehow I think not.