Recent church-state issues before the Supreme Court reveal a new caution and concern over religious pluralism and potential conflict in society, writes Richard W. Garnett in Commonweal magazine (Aug. 13).
The rulings handed down on such cases as “Elk Grove vs. Newdow, involving the reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance, as well as the Court’s refusal to even review explosive debates involving the Ten Commandment monument in Alabama’s Supreme Court building and traditional mess hall prayers at Virginia Military Institute, shows an “uncharacteristic determination and avoid attention and sweeping, controversial conclusions,” writes Garnett.
Last spring, in the case of Locke v. Davey, Chief Justice William Rehnquist had crafted a “narrow, similarly cautious opinion reaffirming that publicly funded scholarship programs may include religious schools, but rejecting the far-reaching argument that under the first Amendment’s Free Exercise clause, they must.”
The Newdow case involving eliminating “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance was struck down by the Court on technical grounds that had little to do with an atheist’s objections to reciting these words. Rather, the ruling was framed around the questions of whether upholding the school’s pledge policy would send a message to nonadherents that they are “outsiders” and cause “political divisiveness along religious lines.”
The Justices’ fear that religion and believers should steer clear of political divisiveness and making a “public nuisance is in line with the growing national concern over American society being fractured on cultural issues. But the new caution may “enforce an ideology of privatized religion,” Garnett concludes.
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