Can We Ever Really Have Complete Freedom?

An article I once read by Edith Stanley of the Los Angeles Times described a battle brewing between the ACLU and a circuit court judge in Etowah County, Alabama. The judge, Roy Moore, a devout Christian, begins jury selection sessions with a Christian prayer and has a plaque of the Ten Commandments clearly visible behind his bench in the courtroom. The ACLU filed suit seeking to prevent the prayers and to force the judge to remove the plaque. The judge has counter sued claiming the ACLU is violating his First Amendment rights by preventing him from freely practicing his religion. The judge says, "I have a right to acknowledge God. I want the end result to be complete freedom of religion in this country."

Unfortunately, there are many in this country who believe the judge is in the right. They don't realize that there really can never be complete freedom of religion in this country just as there can never be complete freedom of speech or the complete right to bear arms. But one shouldn't despair at this revelation since the only restriction placed on most freedoms and rights is that the exercising of your freedom or right must not violate someone else's freedoms or rights. This principle is exactly what the ACLU is fighting to protect although most people see this group of civil rights lawyers as nitpicking anarchists. Nothing could be further from the truth.

As an example, let's reverse the situation in Alabama so that a majority of the people in Etowah County are not Christians. Now suppose Mr. Moore is still a Christian but not a judge. He is now a defendant in the circuit court and upon entering the courtroom, he sees a picture of Lucifer hanging on the wall behind the judge. Instead of being asked to swear on a Bible, he is told to place his hand on a book of magic spells while taking the oath to tell the truth. How long do you think it would take Mr. Moore to file a suit against the judge? And ironically, it would probably be the ACLU he called on to help him file the suit. Why? Because he is being asked to subject himself to someone else's religious beliefs. And he would be well within his rights to protest this sort of treatment. Yet because Mr. Moore is part of the majority he feels he has the right to subject others to the very treatment he would find offensive were he part of the minority. It is this double standard that the ACLU fights in almost every case it takes.

When not fighting the legal double standard, the ACLU tackles the other major stumbling block to equality— tradition. One of Mr. Moore's defenses is that inviting local pastors to open jury sessions is a long standing practice— another name for tradition. SO WHAT?! Slavery used to be a long standing practice. So was lynching minorities the community found offensive or suspected of causing trouble. So was closing one's eyes to child and spouse abuse. So were the stocks and pillories and burning witches at the stake. Simply because something is traditional DOESN'T MAKE IT RIGHT OR ACCEPTABLE TO CONTINUE THE PRACTICE! Yes, there are traditions that are wonderful to keep. But discrimination is not one of them.

Mr. Moore is a government official when acting in his capacity as judge and as such has an obligation to avoid and eliminate any bias he may find in the courtroom. That includes removing his own plaque of the Ten Commandments and ending the practice of opening jury sessions with prayer aimed at any one particular denomination or God. To not do so violates the separation of church and state that is so vital to maintaining freedom of religion. Just as we cannot yell "Fire" where there is no fire or own a nuclear warhead to protect our home and family, so we cannot push our religion on others who choose to believe differently.

There is nothing anarchist about the ACLU demanding such practices stop. Indeed to overlook such blatant infringements on the civil rights of others would be anarchist. If a law doesn't apply to all then what is the purpose of the law? Why have any laws at all if we don't have to obey the ones we disagree with? Isn't that what anarchy really is? Doing what we see as right and to hell with what the law says? To some it may seem a minor violation of the law. But who defines minor? The old adage "Give them an inch and they'll take a mile" is applicable too. It's only a misdemeanor in some areas to have less than an ounce of marijuana. What happens when someone's pulled over with 1.05 ounces? It's just a minor violation of the law. And if 1.05 ounces is allowed long enough, someone will think that 1.1 ounces is okay. After all, it's only 0.05 ounces more than what is acceptable. And if that goes on long enough, someone will ask what's wrong with 1.2 ounces. It's only 0.1 ounces more than what's acceptable and that's only 0.1 ounces more than the law allows.

Where do we draw the line? Fortunately we don't have to. It's already been drawn. If the maximum is 1 ounce, not even 1.01 ounces should be acceptable. The Constitution says that the government or its representatives must not endorse one religion over another. If this is not something Mr. Moore can do as an official of the government, then he must not be an official of the government. There is no grey area here. In accepting a government position, Mr. Moore gave up his right to practice his religion while interacting with the public in his role as a government official. Contrary to what Mr. Moore and his supporters feel, America is not a Christian nation and freedom of religion doesn't apply only as long as it doesn't go against Christian norms. If Mr. Moore wants to live in a country where Christianity is the official religion, let him move to England or any of the other countries around the world where religious freedom is not so highly valued.

Complete freedom can only be achieved when we realize the necessity of self-limitations on that freedom.

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