Fighting over religion in 2006: Déjà vu all over again?

Sunday, January 8, 2006

Relieved that the “holiday season” is over so you can stop fretting about how to greet your neighbor? Confused by the unintelligible debate over “intelligent design”? Tired of bitter lawsuits over Ten Commandments displays? Well, I have bad news for you. When it comes to America’s holy wars, there will be little new in the New Year.

Take the “war on Christmas” (please). It will hibernate for about 10 months only to re-emerge starved for a new diet of Fox News segments (more than 50 this past season). Although Jerry Falwell crows that he “kicked butt” on this issue in 2005, I suspect that most Americans think the Religious Right took a wrong turn by turning “happy holidays” into an attack on Christianity. But fights like this raise lots of money, stir considerable emotion, and make great culture-war theater. Who can resist in 2006?

OK, you say, Christmas wars may be here to stay. But surely intelligent design died in Dover. Not so fast. Even though a federal judge ruled last month that public schools in Dover, Pa., may not promote ID in biology classes, the fight against evolution is far from over. In 2006, ID proponents will redouble their efforts to change state science standards to include challenges to Darwin’s theory.

The key battleground is Kansas, where the state school board voted last year to require more ID criticism of evolution in the classroom. Four of the board’s anti-evolutionists are up for re-election this November. Should they win, ID gets new life. Should they lose, ID will suffer a setback that may surpass Dover in significance.

On the Ten Commandments front, I forewarned a year ago that the U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2005 (McCreary County v. ACLU and Van Orden v. Perry) would probably not stop the lawsuits. Unfortunately, I was right. In June, the Court struck down a courthouse display in Kentucky but upheld a monument in Texas — a Solomon-like decision that only made both sides angry.

The ink was not dry on the Court’s decision before advocacy groups right and left started looking for more displays to put up or take down. One lawsuit has already made its way through the lower courts. Just before Christmas, a federal appeals court found another Kentucky courthouse display constitutional. According to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, there was no religious purpose behind the display and the commandments were surrounded by enough other historical documents to render the Decalogue more history than religion. In other words, it’s OK for government to display religious symbols and messages as long as they aren’t seen as religious. Court rulings like this do religion no real favors.

And that’s not all. Like those annoying tunes that you can’t get out of your head, other “golden oldie” religious conflicts will play over and over again in 2006.

School boards in many towns will debate whether or not to offer a Bible elective — and what curriculum to use. A peaceful solution seemed at hand last September when the Bible Literacy Project published a Bible textbook that won support from people across the religious spectrum (full disclosure: I was one of the reviewers). But since then some religious conservatives have continued to push for Bible courses of dubious constitutionality. So the Bible wars — the longest-running argument in public school history — will continue this year.

So will the never-ending fight over “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. After the Supreme Court dismissed California atheist Michael Newdow’s case on procedural grounds in 2004, he started over, this time joined by three other parents. In September 2005, Newdow advanced to the next level when a federal judge declared the reciting of the pledge in public schools unconstitutional. If the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals again agrees, the stage is set for another round at the Supreme Court.

Maybe the Court will finally settle the question — just in time for Newdow’s next lawsuit against “In God We Trust.”

Unless you are a litigious sort, the prospect of another year of conflicts and lawsuits over religion in the public square may be depressing. But look at the bright side: It’s a free country. Arguing about the relationship of government and religion in America may be messy (and sometimes bitter), but if Christmas greetings, science classes, Ten Commandments displays, Bible courses, and the Pledge of Allegiance are all we have to argue about, how fortunate we are. In a world where thousands will die in 2006 because of violent religious conflicts, let’s be grateful we still go to court to settle our holy wars.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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