FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott discussed state/church issues at the July 7 meeting of the Lake Superior Freethinkers, which is an FFRF chapter that meets in Duluth, Minn. Elliott’s speech, titled “Honor Thy First Amendment,” offered “10 suggestions” for improving state/church separation.
Noting that the region has had its share of controversies surrounding the Ten Commandments, Elliott said that a list of “10 suggestions” for understanding or advancing the First Amendment is fitting:
) Understand motivations.
) Understand “the script” (how communities react in a predictable fashion to state/church complaints).
) Ask for information.
) Be diplomatic.
) Encourage sunshine.
) Challenge bad ideas.
) Coordinate efforts.
) Emphasize equality.
) Recognize judicial limitations.
10) Be persistent.
“Understanding the motivations behind government preference for religion is beneficial,” he said, adding that “state/church conflicts often involve ‘territory marking,’ where symbolic importance is the primary motivation above any true desire to indoctrinate in religious matters.”
For example, FFRF’s 2010 complaint in Hawkins County, Tenn., involved a juvenile court judge who was granted approval to place a Ten Commandments plaque in the county’s Justice Center. The judge, the county commissioners and the community did not notice that the proposed plaque only included nine commandments. The motivation for the plaque seemed to be for its symbolism and to put on the appearance that the judge was pious, not to actually teach the decalogue. (Notably, the judge was sentenced to three years in prison in 2012 for theft of state funds and faces additional charges for alleged theft and money laundering.)
Understanding the true motivations behind government action can help inform freethinkers about ways to counter violations, Elliott said.
He encouraged people to be vocal and visible when state/church issues arise in their community. “Even a small minority can help prevent violations when public officials become aware that ‘majority rule’ does not apply to constitutional issues.”
It’s important to be persistent. Because instant fixes are rare, repeated contact with government officials is often necessary to address Establishment Clause violations. Elliott said that FFRF routinely has to contact government officials multiple times before an issue is resolved.
The Lake Superior Freethinkers describes itself as “a friendship group in support of rational thought, morality without superstition, freedom from religion and separation of church and state.” Meetings are the first Sunday of each month at the Radisson Hotel in Duluth.