County Government Must Be Neutral by Richard Jacobson (September 1994)

Reconstructed remarks to Dane County Parks Commission August 10, 1994

I’d like to thank the members of this Commission for undertaking what is essentially a thankless task–which is making a determination which may fly in the face of what is politically expedient. Our constitution is not only for the majority, and in matters of principle, it may restrain that majority. In the case of religion, government is required by our constitutions to remain strictly neutral, neither advancing religion in general or any particular religion, nor opposing it. That is what we ask you to do.

I must object to the horrifying metaphor used by a previous speaker. As a member of the group most thoroughly victimized in the Holocaust, I resent bitterly his use of the metaphor of “Kristallnacht” to describe Freedom From Religion Foundation’s efforts to enforce the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

Secondly, it is a mistake to invoke and disparage “secular humanism” in the context of our objection to the shrine. Secular humanism will stand or fall on its own, but our position on the shrine has nothing to do with favoring or opposing religion as such: it has to do with upholding the wholesome separation between religion and state which is inscribed in our basic law, and has been developed and refined in the two centuries since. For myself, I am a member of a religious association, and I have no hesitation in opposing any attempt by any religion, or any public body, to intermix religion in our public life.

The absurd claim has been made here not only that we are somehow comparable to Nazis, but that we are culturally Philistines, because we oppose the presence in a County park of a shrine to a particular religion, accompanied by a plaque which appears to endorse the beliefs of that religion. The building itself may well have some cultural value, and cultural values are not to be denigrated: contrary to someone’s earlier remarks, Michelangelo’s Pietà could be shown in a public museum without any church-state issue being raised. But that same statue could not properly be shown in a church paid for by the government. We have no objection to preservation of all our history and culture, but it must be done in a way which does not promote or endorse a particular religion. It will not do–as the rhetoric you have heard seeks to do–simply to redefine the religious as cultural, and thereby somehow preserve it in a public place. A shrine which invites visitors to worship has no place in a public park.

Thank you.

These remarks were made as an a attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation in its complaint about a county supported Catholic shrine.

Freedom From Religion Foundation