Whose Religious Liberty?

"Park cross challenged, Coos Bay gets help from group that fights for public religious displays"
read the headline in the Eugene Register Guard this week. The Vietnam War memorial cross has stood in a Coos Bay park since 1972. The city admits there were challenges to it even then but recently the Freedom From Religion Foundation issued a formal challenge.  Meetings have been packed and emotional.

 A neighbor whose father was injured in the Vietnam War, defends the cross:

It’s the Freedom From Religion Foundation that’s intolerant of religion, Lemmons believes.
“For whatever reason, (the group has) such a negative opinion of Christianity they use the separation of church and state to attack it,” Lemmons said. “I am a practicing Christian, and if I see a Hindu or Muslim shrine, it doesn’t bother me. If it bothers you, don’t look at it. It’s sad to see people can be so fundamental in their beliefs.”
Now the city is accepting help from the Texas-based Liberty Institute which defends religious displays on public property. The Liberty Institute is a non-profit dedicated to "preserving religious liberty" yet a review of Liberty's advocacy record on its website shows a 100% dedication to defending Christian displays, symbols and expression in public places.  I was unable to locate a single case of defending non-Christian rights. Interestingly, the group recommends prayer prominently as a strategy. And they are the advisers for the city government of Coos Bay.

I am reminded of the imagined "War on Christmas", the recent outrage over soda cans that omitted the words "under God" from the pledge of allegiance (which never happened), laws against shariah law that arose in communities around the country a few years ago, and a regular succession of outrage over slights real and imagined to America's dominant religion.

Every religion depends on its own persecution history to fan the faithful. Many have legitimate histories of genuine persecution -- Jews, Native Americans, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and Tibetan Buddhists.  Others have to dig a little deeper to fan those flames. A recent book recounts Christian mythology regarding persecution. Tales of persecution by the Romans to the early church are challenged by author Candida Moss in The Myth of Persecution: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom.

I had generally subscribed to the early persecution stories.  After all, it's not that unusual for a minority (or new) religious group to be persecuted by the majority one. Rajneeshis, anyone?  The anti-Muslim hysteria over the building of a non-mosque in Manhattan also comes to mind. And those are just American examples -- consider Sudan, Germany, the war over Bangladesh or nearly any other place on earth.

When majority religious interests claim persecution though, eyebrows ought to raise. American Christians who are not permitted to push their religious symbolism in the public sphere are offended.  How dare Jewish, atheist or Shinto soldiers or families protest a Christian cross representing their losses? How dare anyone suggest that Happy Holidays is not a direct attack on Christianity? How dare anyone suggest taking In God we Trust off our currency? To the Liberty Institute and others, the words from the First Amendment -- Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof -- mean simply that government shall in fact endorse Christianity.

Is Christianity so fragile that if not allowed to adorn every courthouse, every park, every public school
graduation ceremony, it will be forgotten? No, we are a nation founded on principles of multiple religious experiences and faiths, or none at all. No one stops Christians from worshiping however they choose. But they do not have the right to dominate the public square at public expense. Respect for all, not just Christians.

Good luck, Coos Bay City Council. May you find the courage to do the right thing, the Constitutional thing, regardless of public pressure. Yes, you will assuredly be recalled if you do. After this experience, would that be so bad?