Liberty Of Conscience:
The Mother Of All Liberty
I agree 100 percent with your position on flag burning ("Faith-Based Initiative And Ulterior Motives" with Phillip Duggan).
It is ridiculous to create a law which so obviously tramples First Admendment rights when there are many other laws already that can be adequately used to prosecute flag burners.
From: "Positive Atheism" <email@example.com>
To: "USAF Buttcrack"
Subject: Re: Positive_Atheism_Letters_Section
Date: December 18, 2001 1:06 PM
But let's say that we can get around or somehow take care of all these clean air ordinances and other objections (many of which have been used to prosecute cross-burners): do you think that the First Amendment's duty is to protect the right of a citizen to express his frustration with how his government is acting, even if the "language" of that expression is to burn a flag?
Or, are there some messages (such as flag-burning or cross-burning) that are just too objectionable to be protected by our Constitution's restriction on making laws abridging the freedom of expression?
Where does our Constitution draw the line? May I express my frustration with the way my government is acting? May I express my frustration with America herself? Just how far could I have gone and still have been protected by the original intent of America's First Amendment? How far can I go today, with the current understanding of this Amendment (considering the subsequent Supreme Court rulings and the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments)?
I think these are questions that atheists in America must become fluent in discussing: they are the fount of this entire discussion -- The Basics -- when it comes to engaging in discussions that will affect our Religious Liberty as atheists. If we can become well-practiced in arguing these questions (particularly the one where the line is not clear; that is, the difference between frustration with how the government acts versus frustration with America herself), I think we will be able to see, at a glance and on a moment's notice, when our Religious Liberties are in danger.
The key to understanding an atheist's Religious Liberty is in seeing just how an atheist's viewpoints can be considered religious expression. Both Bush and Gore missed this (or, more likely, deliberately muddied the picture, considering how the truth of this matter impedes the goals of both men, those of funding religion with tax dollars).
But if you can see that an atheist's viewpoint is an opinion about religion, and if refraining from the practice of a religious ritual is an exercise of a religious nature, then you can see an atheist's viewpoint as protected religious speech. This is difficult, and I do not have a very clear picture of how this works (or even how to ask the question properly). I only know that if a religious person's religious expression is protected, then an atheist's expression either about or against religion deserves the same protection: the whole point of the Constitution, as I understand it, is that no citizen is special; the bottom line of all the elements of the First Amendment (and a few of the other Amendments) is Liberty of Conscience: the notion that we cannot legislate a person's thoughts.
During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush gave us a few hints regarding how he would seek to abolish the Religious Liberties of certain citizens (specifically, those whose religious views The Good President finds objectionable).
The first hint came during the Fort Hood affair when soldiers belonging to the Wiccan religion were allowed to practice their rituals on base. Bush, Strom Thurmond, and others, voiced objection. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., joined Bush and Thurmond, likening Wiccan practices to "Satanic rituals" and calling for the bases to stop allowing Wiccan celebrations. The U.S. Armed Forces Chaplain Handbook contains a section on Wicca. Anticipating the sentiments of President Bush, Sen. Thurmond, and Rep. Barr, the Chaplain Handbook mentions that "prejudice against Wiccans is the result of public confusion between Witchcraft and Satanism."
Bush, though, in that never-ending quest to have it his way, has made it clear that he desires to prevent Wiccans and others from having the same protections under the Constitution that members of his own religion of Evangelical Christianity enjoy. Even with such a disparity, the impact would not be nearly as keen if Bush and company were interested in obeying the Constitution. The lax manner in which the Constitution had been enforced prior to Bush taking office made this disparity show up loud and clear, but with all the talk of Bush's Faith-Based Initiative, America just might have to play the role of determining which religions are real and which ones are not -- that is, which are protected and which are not. Had we always obeyed the Constitution as strictly as, say, Jefferson or Madison did, what Bush or anybody thinks of Wicca or atheism would not impact Wiccans or atheists in the least.
During the Fort Hood affair, in June, 1999, Bush told ABC News:
"I don't think that witchcraft is a religion. I wish the military would rethink this decision."
Ah! If Wicca is not a religion, then we won't have to give Wiccans equal protection under the Constitution!
The second method likewise plays games with definitions, but this time the U.S. will be asked to determine which kinds of "hate" disqualify a group from public money under Bush's Faith-Based Initiative (and, presumably, eventual protection under the Constitution). On being asked by a reporter if the Nation of Islam would be eligible for federal money, Bush replied: "I don't see how we can allow public dollars to fund programs where spite and hate is the core of the message. Louis Farrakhan preaches hate." No word from Bush, though, on how he will distinguish between the "hate" he says that Farrakhan preaches and the bitter, vitriolic hatred issued forth from biblical Christian circles toward anybody who is not a Christian -- particularly those of us who "deny the existence of God." The Evangelical Christians, of course, are fond of calling their hate "love," but then neither does Minister Farrakhan call what he does "hate."
But the trick, here, will be to define any targeted group out from under the umbrella of protection.
This will be most important when it becomes the atheists' turn to need protection from the Constitution, and that time should not be far off if recent polls are any indicator. A study by the Pew Forum Online shows that among certain segments of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians, over 66 percent would distrust an atheist after the September 11th Day of Atrocity -- although the figures for those who would distrust a Muslim were much lower.
Earlier I reported that we are now starting to wake up and demand our dignity and rights. I also reported that we are the fastest growing religious group in the nation. This is good but we're still in a world of trouble when it comes to just how widely and viciously despised we are as a group.
We have the awareness and we have the numbers. Now we must figure out how to use both in order to change this situation: we, as a class, have done nothing to deserve the reputation that we "enjoy."
As I pack the last ten years of my life into cardboard boxes because the apartment manager married a member of a sect that doesn't like anybody but themselves but which particularly doesn't like atheists, and as I remember that my troubles began within a day or so of her announcing to him just what it is that I do all day, up here in my apartment unit (she didn't know what his group was about), and as I read the list of complaints -- all of which are complete fabrications and all of which supposedly came from the same unnamed source, and one of which (inaccurately) discusses a situation that only he witnessed, as this all comes together into a complete picture, I realize that working day in and day out to stop bigotry and prejudice and discrimination against atheists does not somehow put a "hedge" around me and protect me from becoming the victim of discrimination for my atheism. There is nothing that I, as an individual, can do even to protect myself. Only when WE, collectively, though not necessarily together and not necessarily in agreement, but collectively in the sense that we all insist on this one thing, collectively demand that each incident of public slander of atheists as a group be dealt with, collectively demand that each suspected case of discrimination against an atheist be examined and, if necessary, showcased (particularly in the large companies and most importantly in the companies which enjoy government contracts, but always recognizing a company's right to refuse to serve whom they will), collectively demand that a working definition of "religion" be instituted and popularized which guarantees that nobody is favored or disfavored because of his or her opinion about religion.
Positive Atheism Magazine
Six years of service to
people with no reason to believe
Added: December 20, 2001
... do you think that the First Amendment's duty is to protect the right of a citizen to express his frustration with how his government is acting, even if the "language" of that expression is to burn a flag?
My short answer to this is "Yes."
The "language" of burning a flag simply displays the crudeness of the individual doing the "speaking." A flag-burner is seeking the same shock value as if using profanity or derogatory labels. The message I get is that the person really has no adequate argument for their opinion and therefore their cause isn't worthy of my further consideration.
Where does the Constitution draw the line? The worn out example of yelling Fire in a crowded theater is the best description of a time that an individual's expressions aren't protected by the First Amendment.
If someone decided to burn a flag at a VFW MIA (missing in action) memorial service, I would feel safe in the position the flag burner was attempting to elicit a violent response -- inciting a riot. At the same time, the Constitution would not protect the veterans from prosecution if their response was to assault the flag-burner -- a likely outcome.
I agree with your conclusion that these types of Constitutional questions are of importance for atheist to ponder and consider their implications. When religious statements by politicians and public officials are obviously made to inflame and illicit a negative response by atheists, are they no different than the flag-burner in the previous paragraph? I say no. Is this a biased opinion? Maybe.
P.S. (bit of trivia: According to the Uniform Code, the proper way to dispose of an unserviceable flag is to burn it. Go figure.)
Material by Cliff Walker (including unsigned editorial commentary) is copyright ©1995-2006 by Cliff Walker. Each submission is copyrighted by its writer, who retains control of the work except that by submitting it to Positive Atheism, permission has been granted to use the material or an edited version: (1) on the Positive Atheism web site; (2) in Positive Atheism Magazine; (3) in subsequent works controlled by Cliff Walker or Positive Atheism Magazine (including published or posted compilations). Excerpts not exceeding 500 words are allowed provided the proper copyright notice is affixed. Other use requires permission; Positive Atheism will work to protect the rights of all who submit their writings to us.