“Rhode Island never touted freedom from religion"
Patrick T. Conley was wrong in his editorial of August 13 that “Rhode Island never touted freedom from religion." Conley's own citation from Roger Williams, that “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils,” makes the case for freedom from religion as well as anything said by Jefferson. Conley invokes a false antagonism between history and law, misrepresents religious freedom and supports his dubious thesis with examples of vastly unequal relevance. His analysis stinks in reason’s nostrils on par with David Barton’s denial of the Enlightenment.
Although the law is not fashioned without historical perspective, even a historian must concede that the courts are right to defer to law on the role of religion in public schools. Historical precedent prior to the establishment of free public education, the ratification of the 14th Amendment, and the Constitution is not binding. A public school simply cannot declare that it has an official school prayer to a "Heavenly Father" but that people who pray to "Allah" or "Vishnu" or no god at all have equally valid beliefs. Religion X only exists in the space of its freedom FROM Religions Y, Z, and so on.
Conflating the Cranston West prayer mural, the Woonsocket memorial, and the Pleasant Valley Parkway cross is another major flaw in Conley’s editorial. The Cranston West prayer mural was clearly unconstitutional. The case of the Woonsocket memorial is not as clear, with many atheists and non-religious citizens themselves agreeing that this memorial to specific Christian soldiers does not violate the Constitution. The Pleasant Valley Parkway cross would have been constitutional if the city allowed anyone to adopt a spot and put up their own monument. It would have been a matter of time before a message offensive to the majority ended any such openness.
Conley is a lawyer but fails to address over 50 years of precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court and by the lower courts. He admonishes nonbelievers not to invoke history to support our claims while invoking his authority as "Rhode Island Historian Laureate" to support a reductionist argument unworthy of a public intellectual. Godspeed indeed.