Sunday, August 26, 2012

Portsmouth Citizen Questions Ahlquist's Award at Touro

From the Newport Daily News Aug 25-26, 2012, page A-8:

Touro's honor for atheist student was puzzling


"Unfortunately, the First Amendment has been broadly interpreted to somehow give the state the right to drive out any outward expression of one's religion."

It was with sincere dismay that I read the lead story in the Aug. 20 Newport Daily News, relating the events surrounding the annual reading of President George Washington’s letter of 1790. This letter, which was written before the Bill of Rights had been established, is a historic masterpiece that includes the famous words, “For happily the Gov. of the U.S. which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” gave comfort to the Newport Jewish community that, like all other religions in America, they were free in the full practice and expression of their faith.

With that in mind, it was puzzling and disappointing that this historic occasion was used in part for the presentation of an award to Jessica Ahlquist, the young student litigant in a suit against the Cranston School Department pursuing the ultimate removal of a banner of long standing given to Cranston West High School by a graduating class many years ago. The suit supported by Ms. Ahlquist and atheist groups, and sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, sought the removal of the banner which contained a list of good citizenship goals and was preceded by the offending words “Heavenly Father help us to,” which speaks to no particular religion, but applies to all religions in one form or another.

The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion, free from government interference. Unfortunately the First Amendment has been broadly interpreted to somehow give the state the right to drive out any outward expression of one’s religion. The lawsuits continue across the country even to the extent of asking for the removal of a cross on top of a hill at a Marine base in California, erected to honor of some of their fallen comrades in Afghanistan, and the move to eliminate the religious identity of other fallen heroes from shrines and monuments erected in their honor: These men died defending all the assurances encompassed in the Washington letter and the First Amendment. Religious freedom applies to all. If Touro Synagogue Foundation Chairman Andrew Teitz wanted to honor Ms. Ahlquist, he is of course free to do so, but this thoughtless presentation should not have been shrouded in an important historical event.

Kathleen M. Melvin

Friday, August 24, 2012

The KKK and Rhode Island: A Shameful History

The KKK in Foster, RI
It's amazing how history loves to reach out from the past and smack us full in the face in the present.

Such is the situation in Smithfield, Rhode Island right now as residents wake up to the reality that one of their beautiful residential streets is named after a Grand Cyclops of Rhode Island's own Ku Klux Klan. As reported in the Valley Breeze:
The late John Algernon Domin is memorialized in this community by the street that bears his name, Domin Avenue.
But questions are arising over why such an honor befits the man who in 1926 assumed a leadership role in Rhode Island's Roger Williams Klavern No. 16, Ku Klux Klan.
In fact, it was on Domin's property, off Stillwater Road in the Georgiaville section, that the Klan held rallies drawing thousands of members and supporters.
The sudden realization that certain parts of Rhode Island used to harbor hate groups should come as no surprise, but people are quick to forget the seamy, hateful parts of their collective memories and tend to concentrate on the good parts. A quick and easy history of the Klan in RI can be downloaded as a PDF here, reprinting a Providence Journal story.

One part struck me:
Rhode Island Klansmen differed from their southern brethren in several respects. The Klan was linked with Democrats in the South, but Klansmen of New England were most often associated with Republicans, the more conservative party, Smith says. 
The state’s Klan groups also drew largely from the business and professional classes, not the poor and uneducated. They staged gatherings flavored with familiar cultural trappings. 

“Outside of New England, you didn’t see many Klans celebrating at clambakes.”
Another difference was the target of the Klan's wrath:
In 1920, Rhode Island’s black population composed less than 4 percent of the state’s residents. But, in 1921, about 45 percent of the state’s 600,000 people were Catholic, and Klan recruiters often found a welcome mat off village lanes.
For me the saddest part of this sordid history is this:
In a state founded on the principle of religious tolerance, America’s foremost hate group found fertile soil, the historical record indicates.
Indeed, John Algernon Domin was the Grand Cyclops of a Klan group that named itself after Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and the father of religious tolerance. The gall of twisting history and abusing the good name of our state's founder to advance a program of hatred is staggering, until you think of evangelical pseudo-historian David Barton, who would rewrite the Founding Fathers of the United States as messianic zealots establishing a Christian theocracy.
The Rhode Island Klan appeared to differ from other Klan dens in one other key aspect: It was not commonly associated with violence. Newspaper reports make no mention of lynchings, floggings or brandings common in other states.
No, aside from occasionally trying to burn down a boarding school for black children the RI KKK restricted itself to terrorism via cross burning and racist leafleting.

Unfortunately, as much as Rhode Island is justly celebrated as being a bastion of religious freedom, it also has a long history of prejudice and intolerance. A look at the hysterical behavior of the crowds at the school committee meetings in Cranston concerning the prayer banner, or the quick and dirty way our state assembly passed a voter identification law to address a nonexistent problem that had the effect of disenfranchising certain voters demonstrates this tendency quite well.

I can't say that today's right-wing, Tea Party infused political climate is the same as that which gave rise to the KKK in the 1920's, but certainly both movements draw from the same sources.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Patrick Conley on Rhode Island’s religious history: Another perspective

by Chuck Flippo

As someone who frequently references Patrick Conley’s historical research, I do not question the particular historical facts he presents in his August 13 Providence Journal editorial “Rhode Island never touted freedom from religion."  He is correct that, despite being a bastion of religious tolerance, colonial Rhode Island did not have actual separation of church and state as is often thought.  Unfortunately, Conley’s editorial ignores the very lessons one should draw from the historical facts that he has done so much to document.  And his final comment, that people standing up for separation of church and state should “not use history to validate your position," is so off the mark as to be an absolute embarrassment to someone with Mr. Conley’s credentials.

Confusion over Rhode Island’s history is perhaps understandable given that the original settlers of Providence signed a document in 1637 agreeing to govern themselves “only in civil things” as opposed to governing religious thought.  That sounds a lot like separation of church and state.  That agreement, however, was soon supplanted by other governing documents that reflected the philosophies of the much less secular founders of Portsmouth and Newport.  The other leaders of colonial Rhode Island did not seem to share Roger Williams’ commitment to the “wall or hedge” of separation. 

And Conley is right about the 1663 charter that John Clarke sent back from England.  Although it protected the colony’s commitment to religious tolerance, it clearly did not separate government from religion.  The charter can indeed be interpreted as suggesting that Rhode Island and Providence Plantations would be a “Christian” colony, albeit one that allowed full freedom for others to worship as they see fit.  That failure to separate government and religion would come back to haunt religious minorities for most of the 18th century. 

This is where Conley falls down on the job, letting his bias against church-state separation color his argument.  His statement that Rhode Island had “more than 300 years of uncontroversial and relatively innocuous contact by religion with the state” is contradicted by the man’s own research!  Precisely because Rhode Island did not have that “wall of separation,” the protestant Christians who ran the government actually wrote religious discrimination into the law books. 

Conley himself has written about this in his study of the 1719 compilation of Rhode Island laws.  The compilation included a provision officially denying the right to vote and hold public office to not only “non-Christians” (meaning primarily the Jewish community of Newport) but to Roman Catholics as well.  This prohibition was in place until after American independence.  Being denied the right to vote and hold office is hardly “innocuous” if you are one of the people being denied those rights!

The Colony’s government and courts drew on that prohibition to help justify their blatantly discriminatory denial of citizenship to Jewish Newporter Aaron Lopez in1761.  Jews were clearly not equal citizens in colonial Rhode Island.  But then, at that time, neither were Catholics.

Another member of Newport’s Jewish community, Moses Michael Hays, stood up to the General Assembly and refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the state that had just declared its independence from Britain.  He refused not because he was against independence (he wasn’t) but because Rhode Island did not treat him as an equal citizen due to his religion.  The treatment that Hays protested in his 1776 public trial was hardly “uncontroversial” and “innocuous”.   

Since “liberty of conscience” was protected by the 1663 charter, people were free to practice whatever religion they wanted in colonial Rhode Island.  They were also free not to practice any religion at all.  Without a wall of separation between church and state, however, the Protestant majority was able to use government to keep religious minorities from enjoying equal civil rights and from having an official voice in the affairs of state. What Rhode Island’s history shows is that religious tolerance alone does not guarantee political rights.

As Conley suggests, Roger Williams believed in church-state separation because he wanted to keep government out of the church.  It wasn’t until Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers decided that a truly democratic society needed to keep the church out of government that we started building the current wall of separation.  Ensuring that the wall remains in place to guarantee equal rights for all is what the Cranston school banner controversy was all about.  (Whether the Woonsocket cross violates the First Amendment is less clear, which is why the Humanists of Rhode Island has not taken a position on that particular matter.  Regardless of its First Amendment status, there were a number of legal issues concerning the cross on Pleasant Valley Parkway.)

While Mr. Conley is right to correct the misperception that colonial Rhode Island had separation of church and state, he does a great disservice by dismissing the mixing of government and religion that followed as “uncontroversial” and “innocuous."  The historical research to which he has contributed shows the discrimination that results when you do not keep church and state separate.

Mr. Conley admonishes those of us who wish to maintain church-state separation to “not use history to validate [our] position.”  If he himself is going to present only half the story - and a biased half at that -- perhaps he should follow his own advice.

Chuck Flippo site manager at Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue National Historic Site and a board member of the Humanists of Rhode Island. The views expressed are entirely his own and not necessarily those of Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue National Historic Site.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Jessica Ahlquist Honored at Touro Synagogue

Note: Today's post was written by Chuck Flippo, site manager at Loeb Visitors Center at Touro Synagogue National Historic Site, with small modifications and formatting by Steve Ahlquist.
It sounds like the start of a bad joke: a Rabbi, an Imam, and an atheist walk into a Synagogue... 

In this case, though, it is the story of a ceremony at Touro Synagogue in Newport - the 65th annual reading of George Washington’s Letter to the Hebrew Congregation. It was a celebration of Washington’s poignant 1790 letter eloquently stating to Newport’s Jewish community (what was left of it after the British occupation of Newport during the Revolution) that the new country would be committed to religious freedom, to being a nation where the government offers “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” To a Jewish community used to being driven violently from country to country (including from England in the 1200's, to be welcomed back somewhat reluctantly generations later,) these words meant that the religious tolerance they had found in colonial Rhode Island would continue in the new United States.

The invocation at Sunday’s reading of the historic letter, given by the Imam of a Providence Muslim community, and the benediction given by Touro Synagogue’s Rabbi, remind of us the breadth of this commitment: that the U. S. would be a country welcoming of Jews and Muslims (“Turks” in Colonial era parlance) as well Christians.

As was noted in the introduction of Jessica Ahlquist, the young atheist who successfully fought for the removal of a prayer banner from Cranston West High School, religious tolerance in Rhode Island applied not only to non-Christians but also to those who did not believe. And there were non-Church goers, and likely non-believers, in Colonial Newport along with Protestants, Jews, the occasional visiting “Turk," and eventually Catholics.

Jessica was there to receive the Judge George Alexander Teitz Award, a non-monetary award from the non-sectarian Touro Synagogue Foundation that is given annually to “an individual or institution that best exemplifies the contemporary commitment to the ideals of religious and ethnic tolerance and freedom, expressed in President George Washington's 1790 Letter.” Jessica joins the likes of the first recipient of the Teitz award, Senator Claiborne Pell.

She was introduced by Judge Teitz’ son, Andy, who reminded the audience of the threats and antagonism Jessica faced in Cranston for standing up for the Constitution and Separation of Church and State. In accepting the award, Jessica made perhaps the most meaningful statement of the afternoon’s proceedings. In talking about her experience with the Cranston school prayer banner, she said, in reference to this event at Touro, "This is what I wanted to happen, this is what I was fighting for when I did this..."

To see Jessica honored by a community that, while largely holding on to its belief in a supernatural “higher being” also sees the importance of Church-State separation, was a moving experience. 
Note: The Providence Journal covered this event with a small selection of photos, completely ignoring the fact that Jessica was honored with a prestigious award at this ceremony. As Chuck told me in correspondence:
[Not mentioning Jessica receiving the award] sounds like a deliberate slight. Though there were certainly other things to write about -- the Imam giving the invocation, Sen. Reed's speech -- the award to Jessica was a significant part of the event. Should have been included. That's really poor journalism.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Conley's analysis stinks in reason’s nostrils

Response to Patrick T. Conley’s editorial of August 13, 2012
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.