For those keeping score, this is a good week for God in the American legal system. Or perhaps a better summary would be that it is a bad week for knee jerk anti-religionists.
In the past few days, the Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear two cases dealing with the ongoing struggle between those who seek freedom of religion and those who seek freedom from religion. In both cases, those in the former camp were the clear winners.
In the case of Badger Catholic vs. Walsh, the court refused to hear an appeal from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which hoped that the justices would overturn a decision that obligated the university to fund a campus Catholic group just as they fund all other campus student groups. The university had withheld funding on a variety of grounds, including the claim that funding Badger Catholic would breach the wall between church and state.
When that argument failed, the university persevered, but to no avail. Having established a “no questions asked” approach to funding a whole variety of student groups, the court found that they had no right to suddenly ask questions when, and only when, religion was involved.
In other words, the court told the university that while they had the right to construct guidelines regarding how they fund student groups, they could not make hostility to religion the only guiding principle. Catholic or not, religious or not, anyone who appreciates that such hostility is always wrong will welcome this decision.
Similarly, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal in the case of Newdow vs. Lefevre, which featured fanatical atheist Michael Newdow in yet another attempt to have the words ‘In God We Trust’ removed from U.S. currency. While I have no great need to see those words on our currency, and would not mind their disappearance from it, this is another case which was turned away because it is based in hostility instead of law.
Mr. Newdow’s claim was that by using money which bears those words, he was being forced to participate in spreading a religious message against his will. Lower courts had already ruled that using money with the word God on it had no theological or ritual purpose, so Mr. Newdow had no case. In refusing to hear the case, the Supreme Court sends the message that was a good enough answer for them, and let the matter drop.
As in the Wisconsin case, the court’s response is one for which we should be grateful, whether we are God-oriented or not. Why? Because in refusing to hear either of these cases, the court reminded us that when it comes to religion, we all should have the right to absence of presence, but that we should not compel the presence of absence.
Our system assures us that nobody should ever be compelled in matters of faith, including the compulsion which comes, even if unintentionally so, from any form of state-sponsored religious preferences, including the preference of religion over no religion at all. That assurance is, forgive me, a sacred one - one of which we should be proud and upon which we ought never to compromise.
But being free from any undesired presence of religion is not the same as assuring the absence of religion, even from the lives of those who would choose it. In refusing to hear these cases, the court reminded us of that distinction and preserved a greater measure of freedom for all by doing so. So I guess it really is a good week for all of us.