Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Woonsocket Cross

Though the Humanists of Rhode Island have, as a group, taken no position on the recent case in Woonsocket of a memorial cross on public lands and the subsequent call for its removal by the FFRF, individual members within our group represent a wide range of opinions on the subject. One of the most erudite and nuanced views comes from William Santagata, who wrote the following letter to Woonsocket Mayor Leo Fontaine. Agree or disagree, I think you will find that William's thoughts are worth your time.

Dear Mayor Fontaine,

As a citizen of Rhode Island with a keen interest in Establishment Clause jurisprudence, I am writing to urge you to keep the cross memorial as-is in front of the Woonsocket Fire Sta­tion. As this complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation comes on the heels of the Cranston School Prayer Banner case, it is no surprise that the Rhode Island community will make comparisons between the two displays. While I believed strongly that that the Prayer Ban­ner was unconstitutional and advocated earnestly for its removal, I also believe that, due to the factual differences between these cases (namely that the Prayer Banner was in a public school, a setting that carries a different and stricter Establishment Clause case law), a comparison between the two is not apt and that the City of Woonsocket would be successful in any suit lodged against it.

The monument in this matter falls within the grey area of the Establishment Clause that is described by Justice Breyer in his concurring opinion in Van Orden v. Perry 545 U.S. 677 2005, which upheld a 10 Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol. While “the government must avoid excessive interference with, or promotion of, religion […] the Establishment Clause does not compel the government to purge from the public sphere all that in any way partakes of the religious. Such absolutism is not only inconsistent with our national traditions, but would also tend to promote the kind of social conflict the Establishment Clause seeks to avoid” (id., internal citations omitted). The factual record particular to this monument aligns closely with the Van Orden standard and this case would play a key role should the City decide to stand its ground and preserve this historical marker.

“Simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doc­trine does not run afoul of the Establishment Clause” Van Orden; rather, the alleged constitu­tional infraction must be viewed through the eyes of the reasonable observer, a fictional person­age who “is the personification of a community ideal of reasonable behavior, determined by the collective social judgment, whose knowledge is not limited to information gleaned from viewing the challenged display, but extends to the general history of the place in which the display ap­pears” Capitol Square Review Blvd. v. Pinette 515 U.S. 753 (1995). The reasonable observer here would see the monument knowing that it is nearly a century old, that it was erected in honor of Mr. William Jolicoeur who was killed in battle during World War I, that Mr. Jolicoeur was a member of the American Expeditionary Forces, and that “Historians and veterans regard the marker as a living link to Europe’s allies, especially France. At the close of World War I, Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, a Frenchman often called Europe’s counterpart to General Dwight Eisenhower, traveled to Woonsocket to dedicate the stone” (The Call, “Cross in Group’s Crosshairs,” 23 April 2012) and that the cross memorializ­ing his death accords with his faith. In his Van Orden concurrence, Justice Breyer noted that “fo­cusing on the text of the Commandments alone cannot conclusively resolve this case. Rather, to determine the message that the text here conveys, we must examine how the text is used. And that inquiry requires us to consider the context of the display” id. (BREYER, concurring). Seeing the cross alone outside of the corresponding monument on which it rests would be to ignore the guidance of the Supreme Court. The reasonable observer would see the cross and monument to­gether as an honorable tribute to a specific Woonsocket citizen in keeping with his religious be­liefs, not as a coercive message by a government intent on endorsing the Christian religion above all others. Additionally, in coming to his decision, Justice Breyer considered the environment in which the stone tablet was placed: “The physical setting of the monument, moreover, suggests little or nothing of the sacred. […] The setting does not readily lend itself to meditation or any other religious activity” id. Nor does the parking lot of a fire station.

While the age of a monument or practice cannot in and of itself cure what would other­wise be a constitutional infraction, it can still nonetheless be a vital factor in determining its con­stitutionality. “Standing alone, historical patterns cannot justify contemporary violations of con­stitutional guarantees, but there is far more here than simply historical patterns.” Marsh v. Cham­bers 463 U.S. 783 (1983). As Justice Breyer found regarding the Van Orden monument, “This dis­play has stood apparently uncontested for nearly two generations. That experience helps us un­derstand that as a practical matter of degree this display is unlikely to prove divisive. And this matter of degree is, I believe, critical in a borderline case such as this one” Van Orden (BREYER, concurring). The 10 Commandments tablet in question stood for 40 years before a suit was filed; the Woonsocket memorial has stood for 91. “Those [91] years suggest more strongly than can any set of formulaic tests that few individuals, whatever their belief systems, are likely to have under­stood the monument as amounting, in any significantly detrimental way, to a government effort to establish religion” id. The passage of time could not forgive an overtly coercive message by the government such as a banner entreating schoolchildren to pray to a “Heavenly Father.” But in regards to religious displays that have additional layers of meaning, such as the 10 Command­ments (with its place within the context of the history of law and governance) or this memorial (the cross not serving a principal purpose of endorsing Christianity but of honoring a specific Christian soldier dear to this community), “those 40 years [regarding the 10 Commandments monument] suggest that the public visiting the capitol grounds has considered the religious as­pect of the tablets’ message as part of what is a broader moral and historical message reflective of a cultural heritage” id. After 91 years, it is therefore this “broader moral and historical message” that dominates rather than a context of endorsing Christianity as the City’s preferred religion that one may glean from only a cursory viewing of the monument. The argument of the Freedom From Religion Foundation “fundamentally misunderstands the way monuments convey meaning. The meaning conveyed by a monument is not generally a simple one like ‘Beef: It’s what’s for dinner.’ Even when a monument features the written word, the monument may be intended to be interpreted, and may in fact be interpreted, by different observers, in a variety of ways” Pleasant Grove City, Utah v. Summum 555 U.S. 460 (2009) (internal citations omitted). To allow com­plainant’s simplistic interpretation of the monument (presumably: “Jesus: It’s what’s best for you.”) to dominate and control public policy would be to allow a “heckler’s veto,” whereby “an unwarranted extension of the Establishment Clause, an extension which would have the unfortu­nate effect of prohibiting a commendable patriotic observance,” would prevail. Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow 542 U.S. 1 (2004) (O’CONNOR, concurring).

In Salazar v. Buono 559 U.S. ___ (2010), the Supreme Court reversed a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals holding that a land-transfer statute passed by Congress to preserve a cross on federal property in the Mojave Desert was devoid of a secular basis and thus violative of the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court, in remanding to the District Court with in­struction to conduct a fact-finding inquiry in regards to the land transfer arrangement, expressed concern with the lower courts’ hastiness to label the cross as purely a government endorsement of Christianity. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, chastises the District Court:
By dismissing Congress’s motives as illicit, the District Court took insufficient account of the context in which the statute was enacted and the reasons for its passage. Private citizens put the cross on Sunrise Rock to commemorate American servicemen who had died in World War I. Although certainly a Christian sym­bol, the cross was not emplaced on Sunrise Rock to promote a Christian message. Placement of the cross on Government-owned land was not an attempt to set the imprimatur of the state on a particular creed. Rather, those who erected the cross intended simply to honor our Nation’s fallen soldiers. id. (internal cita­tions omitted).
Similarly, the cross erected in front of the Woonsocket Fire Station was not “emplaced […] to promote a Christian message” but rather to honor a specific member of the community killed during World War I with respect to that person’s personal religious beliefs. Had Mr. Jolicoeur been Jewish, for example, and the City had tried to re-brand his memory as Christian, this action could be taken as illegal disapproval on behalf of the City for Judaism with accompanying favori­tivism for Christianity. But this is not the case. Had the City erected a cross to memorialize all war dead regardless of their religious beliefs, this issue would be thornier (although still possibly winnable for the City). But again, this not the case. At one time, the City re-dedicated the me­morial to honor the memory of three brothers killed in World War II. If the City were to make a habit of rededicating the monument whenever a Christian solider from the community died, ig­noring Woonsocket soldiers of other religions, this would be seen as impermissible government endorsement of Christianity. But in having selected these four individuals to commemorate, the City did not necessarily show pro-Christian bias. Perhaps these four people had made particular contributions to Woonsocket in the past, or perhaps they were simply well-loved by their fellow Woonsocket citizens. Whatever the reason, the City did not create a constitutional issue in se­lecting certain people to memorialize but not others, for “a government entity has the right to ‘speak for itself ’ [and] ‘it is entitled to say what it wishes,’” so long of course, that it “comport[s] with the Establishment Clause” Pleasant Grove City (internal citations omitted).

Furthermore, throughout the majority decision and Justice Alito’s concurrence in Buono, the Court appears to be itching to declare the cross itself—not merely the land-transfer stat­ute—constitutional under the Van Orden standard, an action precluded by the federal govern­ment’s decision to decline to petition for review by the Supreme Court on that matter. Justice Kennedy continues to upbraid the District Court in finding that it
concentrated solely on the religious aspects of the cross, divorced from its background and context. But a Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs. It is a symbol often used to honor and respect those whose heroic acts, noble contributions, and patient striving help secure an honored place in history for this Nation and its people. Here, one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion. It evokes thou­sands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten. id.
Justice Alito chimes in, arguing that:
The cross is of course the preeminent symbol of Christianity, and Easter services have long been held on Sunrise Rock. But, as noted, the original reason for the placement of the cross was to commemorate Ameri­can war dead and, particularly for those with searing memories of The Great War, the symbol that was se­lected, a plain unadorned white cross, no doubt evoked the unforgettable image of the white crosses, row on row, that marked the final resting places of so many American soldiers who fell in that conflict. […] If Congress had done nothing, the Government would have been required to take down the cross, which had stood on Sunrise Rock for nearly 70 years, and this removal would have been viewed by many as a sign of disrespect for the brave soldiers whom the cross was meant to honor. The demolition of this venerable if unsophisticated, monument would also have been interpreted by some as an arresting symbol of a Government that is not neutral but hostile on matters of religion and is bent on eliminating from all public places and symbols any trace of our country’s religious heritage. id. (ALITO, concurring).
Not only was the original reason for the placement of this cross to commemorate war dead, but to commemorate a specific soldier killed in World War I whose religion is easily verifiable. To re­move this monument, whose primary purpose cannot be shown to promote Christianity to other people, 91 years after the fact, would be to show the callous hostility to “our country’s religious heritage” that the Supreme Court frowns upon.

There are, however, key factual differences between this and the Van Orden and Buono cases that need be addressed. In the Van Orden case, the 10 Commandments monument was do­nated by a private party whose contribution was clearly credited on the display, and was sur­rounded by various monuments donated by other groups that were accepted by the State of Texas on a religion-neutral basis. In the Buono case, the cross in question was erected by a group of pri­vate citizens. But this is not to say that the government can wash its hands of any illegal en­dorsement simply by turning a blind eye to residents who take it upon themselves to put up per­manent religious monuments on government property. The government is accountable for the content of the monuments on its grounds:

Just as government-commissioned and government-financed monuments speak for the government, so do privately financed and donated monuments that the government accepts and displays to the public on government land. It certainly is not common for property owners to open up their property for the installa­tion of permanent monuments that convey a message with which they do not wish to be associated. And because property owners typically do not permit the construction of such monuments on their land, persons who observe donated monuments routinely—and reasonably—interpret them as conveying some message on the property owner’s behalf. Pleasant Grove City.

That the Supreme Court upheld the 10 Commandments monument in Van Orden and appeared inclined to uphold the land transfer in Buono (an action which cannot ipso facto immunize an otherwise unconstitutional display), shows that the fact that private citizens contributed the De­calogue or cross did not dispositively determine the outcomes of these cases. Another difference is that in the Buono case, as stated above, Congress transferred the property containing the cross to private hands during the proceedings of that lawsuit. On the constitutionality of the cross itself as it stood on federally owned land, the 9th Circuit had the final word in finding the cross unconsti­tutional, because, as previously noted, the federal government did not pursue an appeal to the Su­preme Court on that matter. However, the Supreme Court appears extremely critical of that deci­sion and 9th Circuit decisions also set no binding precedent on Rhode Island, which is served by the 1st Circuit.

At first glance, this matter may seem similar to the circumstances surrounding the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision in American Atheists v. Utah Highway Patrol Association which held unconstitutional a series of roadside crosses to honor individual fallen state troopers. This decision sets no binding precedent in Rhode Island and should not even be considered influential on these proceedings. In this case, the State of Utah did not take into consideration the religious beliefs of the deceased troopers, but rather memorialized each of them with a cross with no pol­icy in place to accommodate fallen troopers of other religions. In addition, the crosses were much larger and more obtrusive (being 12 feet tall), creating a chilling and alienating atmosphere for non-Christian residents who had to drive past cross after cross on their public highways. Plain­tiffs also took quick action against the crosses: the community did not wait nearly a century to go by before mounting a challenge to them. The crosses thus did not have the historical significance that the Woonsocket monument possesses. As Justice Breyer clarifies in his Van Orden concur­rence, comparing his decision to uphold that older monument while simultaneously deciding to strike down a newer 10 Commandments monument elsewhere: “in today’s world, in a Nation of so many different religious and comparable nonreligious fundamental beliefs, a more contem­porary state effort to focus attention upon a religious text is certainly likely to prove divisive in a way that this longstanding, pre-existing monument has not” Van Orden (BREYER, concurring).

In short, this matter is worth pursuing. This monument is 91 years old. It asks no one to subscribe to any religious belief or participate in any religious activity. It shows no endorsement of religion, nor preference for religion over non-religion, as it sends no religious message other than the fact that the person it memorializes was Christian. Any interpretation of the monument that isolates the cross from the rest of the memorial does not place the display in its proper cul­tural and historic setting and thus will not be considered by a court of law. Removing this war monument now, nearly a century after its erection “could thereby create the very kind of relig­iously based divisiveness that the Establishment Clause seeks to avoid” Van Orden (BREYER, con­curring). The separation of church and state is a principle that is fundamental to the fabric of our country, and a principle for which I have the utmost respect and admiration. I do not support the preservation of this monument despite the Establishment Clause, but rather because I do not see this as an Establishment Clause violation at all. “I recognize the danger of the slippery slope. Still, where the Establishment Clause is at issue, we must ‘distinguish between real threat and mere shadow.’ Here, we have only the shadow” id. (internal citations omitted).

The cross should stay.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Humanists of Rhode Island called "radical promoters of death"

Father Healey, left
The Rhode Island Catholic website ran an unsigned editorial entitled “Planned Parenthood’s War on Women” on April 19th that specifically accused the Humanists of Rhode Island (though we were misidentified as he Humanist Society of Rhode Island) alongside The American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, Rhode Island Medical Society, Brown Medical Students for Choice and Catholics for Choice of being “radical promoters of death” because of our pro-choice stand on abortion. 

The ire of the editorial was directed at these groups because they all had representatives at the House Judiciary Committee meeting that was convened on April 11th to testify against the seven bills introduced this legislative session that sought to erode a woman’s right to access safe and legal abortion and birth control services. I have written about my experience testifying here, and don’t wish to rehash it, but some of what I witnessed while waiting to testify may be relevant, because I specifically called out the Catholic Church’s lobbyist on his behavior.
Father Healey, who I mentioned earlier, is the lobbyist for the Providence Diocese of the Catholic Church. He arrived late, and did not have a seat. So one of his faithful Catholic followers, an elderly man, gave up his seat so that Healey would not be forced to wait in the overflow room and watch the proceedings on closed circuit TV. This process, where an elderly man gives up his seat to a priest and is forced to wait outside, was done without a moment's consideration by either party. Of course the elderly man would give up his seat, and of course the priest would not only accept it, he expected it.
I also had this to say about Father Healey:
Healey spoke first, about the Catholic Church's long standing opposition to abortion (and, I might add, condoms, the pill, or any other form of birth control that works.) It surprised me how inelegant his words were. they were rote and delivered in an almost bored manner. Could this unpleasant man really be the point person for the Catholic Church's political power in Rhode Island? Is this who our legislators listen to when it comes time to deal with issues like marriage equality, reproductive rights, poverty relief and immigration?
So I was hard on the guy. But is that any reason to call my group “radical promoters of death”? The Catholic Church is one of the first to cry foul (through their wonderful Catholic League For Religious and Civil Rights under the pleasant Bill Donohue)whenever anyone points out that the Catholic Church has for decades (if not centuries or millennia) been covering up and abetting the ritualized rape, torture and mutilation of children.

I have no idea who wrote the editorial for the Rhode Island Catholic website (I suspect Father Healey, though I have no evidence to support this), but if they want to start slinging stones of insulting, de-humanizing and polarizing invective towards groups like the Humanists of Rhode Island who hold human rights and values in the highest regard, they might want to make sure that they are not doing so from houses made of glass.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Humanists of Rhode Island at the Roger Williams Park Clean-Up for Earth Day

Roger Williams Park
Members of the Humanists of Rhode Island turned out for the fifth annual Roger Williams Park Earth Day clean-up. The clean-up, scheduled from 9AM to noon, actually ended early because of the record number of volunteers.

The photos on this page are all from Sarah, the news report care of Channel 12 in Providence.

Tangie and Steve
After the pick-up
Before the pick-up
Park ducks
Across the pond

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Importance of Humanist Weddings and Funerals

Over the last weekend I was in New York City with the Humanist Institute discussing the future of Humanism and how to best grow the "movement" in light of the polling data that shows that people are fleeing organized religion but still unable to identify themselves as atheists or humanists. The point was made by humanist philosopher John Shook that in England right now, eighty members of parliament identify as humanists. In the United States, by contrast, only one member of the House of representatives identifies as a non-believer. (Rep. Pete Stark of California.)

John's thought that the humanists in parliament felt able to "come out" as humanists because humanism is no big deal in England. In fact, lots of people have attended humanist, non-theistic weddings. It's no big deal to be a humanist in England, because people see it for what it is, another kind of lifestance among many.

John's suggestion was that we needed more humanists officiants or celebrants. I immediately saw the logic of the idea. People who right now in Rhode Island are looking for a non-religious wedding are stuck with a civil servant of some kind, like a judge or justice of the peace, or with a liberal UU minister. Scott Rhodes, a humanist out of Pennsylvania, wrote the following on the Harvard Humanist blog:
When the big day arrived, it was a sunny warm October morning. The trees were showing off their autumn finery and we had gathered our immediate families in a brick courtyard under their boughs.  The minister did her thing and we shared our vows and the event couldn’t have gone better. Then the UU minister handed us our personal horoscopes that she had put together and counseled us on the importance of the stars in our lives. Sigh.
My wife Katherine and I were married by a judge, because at the time it was the best alternative we could find to a religious ceremony. It was a wonderful ceremony and a wonderful day, but perhaps a wedding presided over by someone more akin to my non belief would have been more fitting.

The American Humanist Association and the Center for Inquiry both maintain humanist officiant training and certification programs, but the AHA requires hundreds of dollars in travel and much training. A look at their list of celebrants revealed little more than 125 celebrants in the entirety of the United States, and none in Rhode Island.

Fortunately I asked around and Gretchen Robinson pointed me to the Spiritual Humanism site. Though I'm not entirely on board with the word "spiritual" I have read the site thoroughly and the group is in no way "woo-y." As I explained in a Facebook post recently, when asked about my trouble with the word spiritual:
I just find that when I talk about Humanism in general, it's sometimes best to not borrow too heavily from a traditional religious vocabulary. Words like spiritual and faith (and many others) can serve to obscure the very real differences between humanism and religion in general. I have great appreciation for the history of religious humanism, and recognize that humanism is a spectrum of beliefs. That said, I want to avoid our movement being confused with "just another religion."
Of course, a quick and dirty Internet ordination does not make anyone an expert in performing delicate, emotional services like weddings, funerals and the like. We still need training and practice. Recently Harvard did some celebrant training that may have been invaluable had I been open to this possibility before. I did go to the trouble of turning the list of suggested reading for the class into a document for our Facebook group, and I am starting to gather the texts into a lending library for our group. (Though I  will be building it slowly.) I also created a document that lays out the marriage laws in Rhode Island in a basic way. Both documents are editable, so if there's a book you would like to see added or if the laws as stated are different in some way, jump in.

My hope is that members of our group who are interested in pursuing this will sign up to become celebrants and begin to offer our services. When I look at our group I see a diverse range of members who could serve a wide variety of the public. Whatever kind of person you may envision performing your ceremony, we have them. Or soon will.

Also, as Humanists we have to be ready and able to engage publicly on the Marriage Equality issue. I believe we can do so with more gravitas if we make a commitment to secular marriage in this way.

As ceremonies of this kind are performed more and more often, our movement will not only grow, it will be accepted. It will have political clout. It will have a voice. 

It's a small step, so small I almost missed it, but it will have a huge effect.