Monday, June 26, 2017

Why Trinity Lutheran v. Comer means we have work to do

Today I put on my hat as chair of the Boston Atheists steering committee. Here follows my ninety seconds of soapboxing on the subject of today's SCOTUS decision.

If the government can't be trusted to recognized and defend the separation of church and state, secular communities, organizations and individuals are going to have to focus and redouble our efforts to make that separation relevant. We have to make the case that such a separation is in the interest of all persons living in our society; and we have to show people that political secularism is the necessary counterpart to social pluralism. Roll up those sleeves, folks; there's work to do.

A good analogy can be made to the displays on the courthouse lawn. SOCAS indicates that the government either allows ALL organizations representing a worldview stance -- for whatsoever flavor of theism or nontheism you can imagine -- to plant their sectarian displays on the lawn, or it refers all of them to private land, leaving the public space open, uncluttered by the symbols of doctrinal vanity and competition.

If SCOTUS rules that SOCAS means "ALL are accommodated" (rather than "NONE" or "ALL or NONE"), then as secularists we better make damn sure that:

  1. The secular symbols we put on the lawn are the most awesome, vainglorious, stupendous and eye-catching possible; and that 
  2. Symbols of ALL sectarian positions, so that no worldview, by dint of its majority status or gamesmanship, chokes them out. That puts atheists on the side of all religious minorities in this fight.
In terms of inclusion, atheists have to be on the side of radical inclusiveness (until the government comes around to defending SOCAS in a robust fashion.) In terms of operation, however, atheists should be motivated to win.

While we work to legally neutralize these threats to SOCAS, we are going to have to try to outcompete theistic orgs in terms of operational prowess. 

If there's a government grant that a religious organization is eligible for, there's no excuse for secular people not to step up and make sure our orgs are not just eligible to receive that funding, but are by far the most qualified. 

We could even view this situation in a positive light. If we're called to step up and provide community and social services on par with those provided by theistic orgs, and we can out-compete those orgs for government funding, we'd be pulling off an interesting trick: for we'd be denying money to groups whose doctrines help to the dangerous ideas of supernaturalism, Hey, maybe we should thank Gorsuch for lighting a fire under our backsides!

Furthermore, we'd be directing money through channels that are welcoming of ALL -- no dogmatic requirements to receive help; no profession of faith needed; no litmus tests of belief. I've heard too many stories about soup-for-sermons at soup kitchens, of LGBTQ homeless persons turned away from religious shelters because of anti-gay prejudice, and so on.

To close out this post, let's go back quickly to the courthouse lawn. On the other hand, if SCOTUS rules that the preferred interpretation of SOCAS is "NONE" (or "ALL OR NONE"), then... great! Celebration time! We can enjoy our public spaces, without the cacophany of sectarian messaging, and keep our wits about us for some future time when religious privilege once more tries to claim an advantage for itself.

Given today's ruling, however, we'd be smart to begin gearing up for an ALL fight.