Thursday, August 11, 2011

What would you put on your headstone? American Exceptionalism, Religion, the Constitution, & the ACLU

American exceptionalism has been pouring into the political conversations of Americans quite a bit as of late. Along with the notion of exceptionalism, is the differing and usually deeply held viewpoints Americans have concerning the deference our founding fathers gave to religion.

First Amendment author James Madison sums up what the founding fathers understood about the role religion was to play in America. James Madison said of religion, “Experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. [Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785), in 8 Papers of James Madison 301 (W. Rachal, R. Rutland, B. Ripel, & F. Teute eds. 1973)]. Madison seemed to believe that religion would be corrupted if it was brought into the public sphere. If religion was to have an impression on the public it would not be shared through the organs of the government, rather by the hearts and efforts of those willing to spread what they believed to be the truth.

Because of this belief in a separation between any religious establishment and the government, James Madison included two specific clauses in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof [.]”

These two clauses reflect what is often termed freedom of conscience. This includes the liberty of any individual in our democracy to hold a belief or point of view irrespective of its popularity or approval from either other private citizens or the government. This most certainly includes the freedom to privately engage in or abstain from religious belief and expression. This liberty should not, and constitutionally cannot, be afforded to some groups and not to others. As a consequence, the ACLU subscribes to the principle that if the rights of society’s most vulnerable members are denied, everybody’s rights are imperiled.

The freedom of conscience, according to the ACLU, must be protected not exclusively for the most numerously held or conventional religious beliefs, but also for any genuinely held beliefs. From a constitutional perspective this is not only a just principle but also a fairly straightforward application of a fundamental right of expression. This protection of all viewpoints, regardless of their cohesion with those of the majority, may be misconstrued as an effort to undermine the majority belief system. As a result, a number of false ideas have been propagated into the canon of myths surrounding the ACLU’s reverence for those beliefs.

Probably the most infamous and equally untrue accusation is that the ACLU has sued to remove crosses. The ACLU’s position is just the opposite. In fact, the ACLU aims to ensure that soldiers and their families can choose which gravestone and symbols best express their faith.

Currently, the federal government has a list of 41 authorized religious emblems for headstones in Arlington Cemetery. This list includes Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal and Greek crosses, along with a number of other symbols. This authorization list may impose a limitation on the deeply private choices of soldiers and their families regarding personal gravestones. If a family wants a specific symbol, associated with their family but not on the authorized list, placed on the gravestone, they are required to go through a cumbersome process. Ultimately, their request may be denied by the government.

The ACLU believes that the decision of what symbol, if any, should be placed on a gravestone in Arlington cemetery, should be more inclusive and less cumbersome. The Department of Veterans Affairs has an unnecessarily complicated process for approval of a religious symbol on an individual gravestone in Arlington cemetery. The ACLU has openly stated that inclusion of all religious symbols would promote religious expression, in its fact sheet, Myths & Realities: Gravestones and Markers Are Not in Danger.
If the Department of Veterans Affairs adopted this policy, all American service members and veterans would enjoy a greater ability to exercise their freedom of conscience.

What the ACLU opposes is endorsement of a particular religious faith by the federal government. When the government erects a permanent religious symbol on public display, it essentially sanctions that religion to the exclusion of others. The ACLU has taken action to have those government-sponsored sectarian symbols removed when in the public space of a cemetery. Religious displays by the government, unlike religious symbols on gravestones, fail to honor all of our veterans.

A simple checking of the facts discredits the notion that the ACLU wants to remove religious symbols from personal gravestones. The ACLU is advocating for more latitude to exercise religious beliefs freely, so long as the government doesn’t establish within itself any particular religious ideology.

For more information, see The ACLU and Cemetery Crosses.

Matthew Pennell,
Legal Extern