In God We Fuss 

Atheists and the ACLU stand up to an unthinking lawmaker

Atheists and the ACLU stand up to an unthinking lawmaker

Every now and then, there’s a bill in the General Assembly that offers a particularly frightening glimpse into just how legislative sausage is made.

Democratic state Rep. John Mark Windle of Livingston isn’t going to suffer politically for peddling the latest poster child of thoughtless lawmaking, but he should. He’s introduced a bill in the Legislature that would require all newly made Tennessee state flags to bear the phrase “In God We Trust.” (The bill is being sponsored in the Senate by Knoxville Republican Tim Burchett.) This, of course, might be popular enough among a mostly Trinity-observing Tennessee electorate, but that doesn’t make it right. And as if the substance of the bill weren’t bad enough, the idea for the change came from a Methodist youth group in his district that apparently hasn’t studied civics yet.

Memo to Windle: 1. When you’re pandering, make sure you’re doing it with people old enough to vote, and 2. Make sure you’re pimping something innocuous and not a revision to a nearly 100-year-old Tennessee tradition. (The state flag was adopted as such in 1905.)

While the problems with the bill are, at least to an intelligent public, quite obvious, the legislation’s opponents—the ACLU, of course, and the American Atheists—might actually have a hard time fighting it. “In God We Trust” is, after all, a national motto, first printed on coins during the Civil War to boost soldier morale, and later emblazoned on U.S. currency during the height of the Cold War era when political divisions between the Soviets and the U.S. were considered, in large part, to be based on the conflict between a Judeo-Christian culture and one of Communism.

Surprisingly enough, challenges to the government’s adoption of the seemingly spiritual message on the grounds that it collides head-on with the constitutional mandate of separation of church and state so far have been unsuccessful. Courts have ruled that it’s not so much religious as it is a form of ceremonial deism.

Still, says Hedy Weinberg, the Tennessee director of the ACLU, “Changing the flag to basically promote a particular religious doctrine is questionable. This does not say, ‘In Gods We Trust.’ ”

She says that because the motto refers to only one God, “It can be interpreted as an endorsement of mono-theist religions, excluding Atheism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism” and so on.

Weinberg and Carletta Sims, the Tennessee director of American Atheists, agree that the proposal can only promote discord. “It’s definitely divisive,” Sims says. “You’re going to see a lot of people come forth and be angry about this.”

Beyond that, the state flag is tradition, a likeness to which Tennesseans have grown accustomed. “We have an attachment to our state flag,” Weinberg says. “Why would we want to have some state flags looking one way and others looking another way?”

Meanwhile, there’s another Windle bill that the ACLU and the Tennessee chapter of the American Atheists probably could stop, or at least have declared unconstitutional, were it ever approved by a 132-member Legislature too intimidated by the vocal stylings of the Christian right to press the “No” button.

Windle, 38, wants state officials to be allowed to post the Ten Commandments at will in public buildings throughout the state. (Perhaps this is his way of announcing his gubernatorial candidacy.) And unlike the similarly ridiculous Ten Commandments legislation a few years back, which was a harmless nonbinding resolution, Windle’s proposal is actually a bill.

Some may wonder what the difference is between plastering “In God We Trust” on the state flag and the Legislature, for example, offering an ecumenical prayer as it assembles every day during session. But there is a distinction: Christian prayer in legislative settings is nothing new. It’s a tradition in city councils and state legislatures all across America, not to mention in Congress.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled such prayer is not permitted in public schools, but the supremes have come to a different conclusion in the context of legislative settings. “The rationale is that these are adults who are attending meetings voluntarily,” Weinberg says. “I think the U.S. Supreme Court decision is unfortunate, but it does stand.”

The state flag, meanwhile, isn’t just a few prayerful words between lawmakers. It belongs to all Tennesseans.

Chances are pretty good that the opponents of these two staggeringly inappropriate bills can keep them out of committee, and therefore out of the Tennessee law books. The danger, however, is that spineless legislators will be sufficiently numbed by the prospect of being described as unholy that the legislation will slip through.

It’s easy to offer an eye-roll at the atheists (all 150 of them on the mailing list in Tennessee) and the sometimes annoying ACLU. But they are protecting us from ourselves. After all, it shouldn’t take a bunch of organized nonbelievers with a fax machine to keep lawmakers within constitutional bounds.

If the constitution is just too heady for Windle to contemplate, perhaps he should observe one of the best rules in politics: “Never speak, unless it improves the silence.”

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