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Church, State, and Providence

The issue of prayer in school has reared its ugly head, this time in Cranston, Rhode Island.  And once again, I’m taking the position that all sides are in the wrong.  We shouldn’t even be having this fight.

The basics are these.  A 16-year old self-described atheist named Jessica Ahlquist objected to a written prayer hanging on the wall of Cranston High School West’s cafeteria.  The New York Times article linked here has a photo of the dreadful prayer.  Honestly, it just barely qualifies as a prayer.  If ever there existed a vague wish for niceness directed generally toward Somebody Up There Whoever You Are, this is it.  The intelligence being addressed in the prayer has no name other than “Heavenly Father,” a hint that the prayer’s composer might have been a Christian but not really qualifying as a sectarian supplication.

Nevertheless, it was enough to summon Ms. Ahlquist’s inner freedom fighter.  She and her enablers found some lawyers at — where else? — the American Civil Liberties Union and filed a suit which they have now won.  A federal district court has, with dreary predictability, ruled that the prayer violates “the separation of church and state,” a phrase never used in our Constitution.  Under the heading of, “irony can be very ironic,” the U.S. District Court ruling took place in Providence, Rhode Island.  Will they have to rename the city so atheists won’t be offended all over again?

If you want to read the opinion of Judge Ronald R. Lagueux (from where else but Harvard Law?), you can find it here.   I can save you some trouble by summarizing the salient parts.

His Honor recounts the provenance of the written prayer and notes how often Ms. Ahlquist has been subjected to it.  He describes the actions of various fools who said nasty things about her but declines to explain how her detractors’ churlishness bears on the merits of her case.  I suspect the judge of making an ad hominem argument but leaving the conclusion tacit so it won’t attract attention.  His argument is that the defendants are supported by trolls; therefore they should lose.

His Honor established Ahlquist’s standing (her right to sue) by noting that she is a student at the school and that the prayer made her feel “excluded, ostracized and devalued.” He also allowed that Ahlquist had in fact denied that she was offended by the prayer.  Lagueux commented on that blazing inconsistency by saying, “The Court fails to find these statements inconsistent.” Okay, now that’s just retarded, but whatever.

The judge then ran a pointless rabbit trail by affirming that Ahlquist is “captive” at school — his word, captive.  The claim is actually false (she could go to school elsewhere) though I am assured by legal counsel that Ahlquist’s ability to go elsewhere would not be accepted by the court as a reason to deny her standing.  Further, since the claim of captivity was apparently neither brought up at the trial by either side nor proved by any evidence presented to the court, one wonders why the heck he brought it up at all.  After pages of this gobbledygook His Honor gets to the bottom line: Ahlquist is a student at the school, and he thinks the Supremes would accept that alone for standing.*  Okay, fine… so why didn’t he just say that in one sentence and be done with it?  If you’ve got the needle in your hand, why throw it in the haystack if not to hide it?

His Honor eventually meanders his way over to what matters, which is whether the prayer poster is forbidden by the Constitution.  On page 26 of his decision he quotes the First Amendment and makes what must be described as a stunning, screaming, banzai  omission, “‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…;'” and the ellipsis is in the judge’s original text.

In other words, His Honor omitted the key phrase, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Yes, it’s true!  The judge deleted the free exercise clause from his ostensible quote of the First Amendment!  You simply cannot make this stuff up.

His Honor then proceeds to argue that the religion clause was “extended to the states with the enactment of the fourtheenth amendment.”  Here’s your link to the text of the fourteenth amendment.  The judge is talking about the second sentence which says,

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Rather than rebut the judge phrase by phrase, I will say only that the judge neglected to explain how stringing together the First and Fourteenth Amendments makes the prayer illegal.  If it’s not illegal under the First Amendment (and it isn’t), then why bring up the Fourteenth?  More importantly, we are left to wonder how the Fourteenth Amendment might have enlarged upon the “free exercise” of religion if only the judge had been able to unearth the existence of this phrase in the Constitution.

And free exercise is the point actually at issue.  No reasonable, historically-informed person could possibly maintain that a poster in a school cafeteria actually posed a legitimate threat that the government was about establish a religion.  To affirm so is not just false; it’s stupid.  A disinterested judge ruling strictly on the text of the Constitution would have thrown out the case with a horselaugh.

But this sheds light on why the plaintiff could show no harm, why the judge resorted to a half-stated ad hominem argument, an incomplete quote from the Constitution, and invalid logic about the Fourteenth Amendment in order to support his decision.  No fair reading of the Constitution could ever make this case for him.

The judge then proceeds to case law supporting his position including various tests about purpose, coercion, etc.  I must confess at this point that John Whitehead long ago poisoned my mind against over-reliance on case law.  My summary: We’ve done it like this for a long time, and here’s the proof, ibid., ibid., ibid., as if this actually settled the crucial question of what the Constitution actually says about the poster.  Then he finishes up with fatherly assurance that we’re all better off with the result he decrees, and thus spake Zarathustra, amen, over and out.

So much for the suit.

My other comment is far shorter — and here I go stomping barefoot through the minefield.  The whole notion of a “public,” which is to say, a government school is really what should offend civil libertarians, not the vapid, Gospel-free prayer posted in the school cafeteria.  The real dagger in the heart of liberty is people hatching the idea of using government power to make their neighbors pay for the education of their own children.  Further, was it not obvious where this would lead once the government got involved?

A republic cannot long remain free with the state in possession of the minds of the children.  To folks in Rhode Island: If you want freedom, start exercising it by opting out of the system.  Educate your own kids.  You can’t control what your neighbors are going to do, and it’s obviously a fool’s errand to expect the courts to defer to the Constitution at any point where it conflicts with the goal of establishing an aggressively secular state.  However, you can control your own actions.  Do the part that is possible for you to do, and leave the results to Providence — God, that is, not the city.


*I’d like to forward that argument to Philip Berg who filed the first Obama “birther” case.  Berg’s suit was dismissed because he had no standing.  Berg had argued that he any American citizen had standing when seeking to have the terms of the Constitution enforced.  The federal court denied that and said he had to show how he personally would be injured even if it were true that Barack Obama was not a U.S. citizen.  The court said the harm to the country would be so diffuse that no individual would ever be able to show any personal injury even if it could be proved that Mr. Obama was born abroad.  Now a different federal judge who is clearly vested in protecting a different outcome has accepted a plaintiff’s standing based solely on membership in a group (she was a student) and despite her explicit denial that she had suffered any harm!  And people wonder why courts are often so contemptuously esteemed as self-serving enforcement units for America’s contingent of hard-left malcontents.

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