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eugenegill
Jan 31 2009
Bill Connor - Greenville News Jan 31

Bill Connor's guest column (http://www.greenvilleonline.com/apps/pb ... 9901310321)on page 10 of today's Greenville News cannot go unanswered.

He starts by stating that Secular Humanism is a religion. He continues by claiming that atheism is a "faith". Having made these claims, he then wants Secular Humanism excluded from having a SC license tag under the establishment clause. By a twist of logic, Christians should have a tag for the same reason!

Could someone please point out that atheism is not a religion. It is in fact the opposite of religion. It is as far from religion as you can get. Therefore the establishment clause is totally irrelevant to atheism.

Atheism is a religion just like bald is a hair color, or not playing baseball is a sport, or not collecting stamps is a hobby.

Mr. Connor then goes on to recite the same old tired tropes about the meaning of the establishment clause, persecution of Christians in South Carolina and "demand that all belief in God...not appear in the public square".

The establishment clause is all that stands between us and and a committee of ayatollahs.

Since Mr. Connor parades his military service so proudly, I wonder what is his opinion of the tragic case of Pat Tillman, who should be playing in the Superbowl tomorrow?

Alex_Kasman
Jan 31 2009
Re: Bill Connor - Greenville News Jan 31

I was thinking of sending this letter as a reply. Any thoughts or feedback before I do? (BTW After I send it off, I'll post some additional thoughts here that I did not have room to include in the letter.)

-ak

Dear Mr. Connor,

Your January 31st article on religious license plates in South Carolina contains numerous inaccuracies which I hope to correct.

The first is the misimpression that secular humanists want you to hide your religious identity. In fact, like you (and Samuel Huntington, whom you quote), we believe that the Bill of Rights ensures individuals freedom of expression in regards to religion and that this was a brilliant addition to the Constitution. I do think that Americans should be free to display their religious beliefs not only in their places of worship but on bumper stickers, on t-shirts, or even painted on the outside of their homes (as one Charleston resident has done), if they so choose. This freedom is available to everyone -- those in the religious majority, religious minorities and the non-religious as well. Your suggestion that we wish to eliminate all forms of religious expression is a complete misrepresentation of our views.

You also seem to misunderstand the establishment clause and the intent of those who wrote it. Of course, the point was not to eliminate personal religious expression, but to ensure that the government itself is religiously neutral. Your view that this was not the original intention of the writers of the Constitution must be based on ignorance of their writings, since they wrote about it frequently and clearly. For instance, you mistakenly state that Jefferson was not discussing the Constitution when he famously coined the phrase "wall of separation between church and state". One only has to read the entire sentence to see that this is precisely what he was talking about:

"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state." (Thomas Jefferson, as President, in a letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, 1802

Quotations from constitutional author James Madison demonstrate that he, too, believed it required the government to be completely neutral on religious issues. For instance, Madison refered to the establishment clause in his argument that the president should not call for a non-denominational "day of prayer" saying it would "seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion." Of course he believed in the right of individuals to pray, but clearly did not think that the government had any business even suggesting that they do so.

A third mistake in your article, a serious omission, was to fail to point out an important difference between the "I Believe" plate and the specialty plate from the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. As you noted, an organization's specialty plates do not necessarly represent the views of the government. (Alpha Kappa Alpha has one, but that does not mean that this sorority has a special governmental endorsement and similarly then for our plate.) The "I Believe" plate, unlike ours or Alpha Kappa Alpha's, was created by a specific act of the state legislature. The court concluded, as seems inarguable, that this represented a governmental endorsement of the religious viewpoint expressed on that plate and was therefore disallowed.

Finally, we secular humanists cannot take the credit for the legal decision regarding the "I Believe" plate, though you seem intent on making us a scapegoat. The organization involved was Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which shares our goal of protecting religious freedom by keeping the government religiously neutral, but all of the complaintants in this case (including Rev. Dr. Robert M. Knight, Rabbi Sanford T. Marcus, and Rev. Dr. Neal Jones) were religious members of that organization and not secular humanists at all.

In conclusion, although we strongly believe in your right to express your religious views on a bumper sticker or in your newspaper column, we also believe that the US Constitution wisely prohibits the government from doing the same. If you choose to write on this topic again, please take care to make this important distinction in order to avoid misrepresenting our views.

Sincerely,

Alex Kasman

Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry

Charleston, SC

JonathanLamb
Jan 31 2009
Re: Bill Connor - Greenville News Jan 31

Bravo, Alex. Well said.

meemoon
Feb 1 2009
Re: Bill Connor - Greenville News Jan 31

Precisely precise. The "atheism is just another religion" argument is the oldest,stupidest,and usually, the firstest.

Alex_Kasman
Feb 2 2009
Re: Bill Connor - Greenville News Jan 31

I have sent a copy of the letter to the Greenville News, but edited it slightly first so that Connor himself was no longer the recipient. (That is, it just says "Connor made mistakes" and "he says" rather than "you made mistakes" and "you say"...)

As I mentioned above, there are some other things I would have liked to have discussed in the letter, but there was not enough space. One of them is the idea that Meemoon raises above.

Atheism is not a religion and I am not aware that the courts have ruled (or could rule) that it is. It is a semantic and not a legal question. As others have said before me, atheism is not a religion the same way that "not playing golf" is not a sport.

HOWEVER, I disagree with some others in the SHL who have communicated with me about this and its implications for our IRWT license plate. I would not say that it is because we are not a religion that our plate is okay. In this point, perhaps, I am in agreement with Connor. Whether secular humanism is a religion or not (a debate that is really beside the point here) is is certainly not religiously neutral. We state explicitly that we do not believe in the supernatural, and that is a statement with religious implications. Consequently, just as I believe the Constitution bars the government from "establishment of religion", I think it also prevents the government from specifically endorsing secular humanism in contrast to other religious viewpoints.

So, what does that mean about our IRWT plate? An argument could be made that our "In Reason We Trust" plate does not actually say anything with religious implications, and I think that is technically true. As compared to "In God We Trust" and "I Believe (with a cross)", what is printed on our plate is actually rather neutral. In some senses, it is more like the Bob Jones University plate (also available in South Carolina), in that one really has to know something about the sponsoring organization to realize that the person with that plate is making a religious statement by having it. Still, if you want my honest opinion, I don't think that any of these (including ours!) should be available on license plates.

Ideally, I think the license plates should not have religious statements on them of any kind. This would maintain governmental neutrality and (despite the sob-stories from those who feel that this would force them to hide their religious identity) would not limit anyone's free speech. There are many ways in which people can express their religious opinions on their cars if they want to. They can paint it on the car, they can put a bumper sticker on the car, they can hang a religious symbol from the mirror, etc. I do not see any compelling reason that the religious opinion needs to appear printed on the official, government distributed license plate.

Since this is my opinion, you may wonder why I drive a car with an IRWT plate. In fact, I see it as a very subtle form of protest. I do wish that license plates were not places for the expression of religious opinion because it raises the very issues of governmental support of religion that Jefferson and Madison sought to avoid. However, if there are going to be explicitly theistic and explicitly Christian plates in South Carolina (and there are), then I will get a license plate that reflects my atheism as well. The best possible outcome, from my point of view, would be for people to realize from this that it would be better not to involve the government in religious issues like this and agree to just get rid of all of these plates. In South Carolina, at this point in time at least, this does not seem a likely outcome. So, I drive a car with a plate that I think technically should not be allowed as a protest against those other plates that I also think ought not be allowed.

So, does anyone have a guess as to whether the Greenville News will actually publish my letter? I've never read it, and so I don't know what their letters page looks like. (That reminds me, when I looked at the comments at the bottom of Connor's article in the online version, I was pleased to see that most were critical of his editorial!)

-Alex

eugenegill
Feb 3 2009
Re: Bill Connor - Greenville News Jan 31

Alex, as the OP I concur with your well-expressed analysis. The whole reason for the separation of church and state is to avoid the kind of bitterness we now see.

Anyway, I live in Greenville and subscribe to the Greenville News. I am out of town on business this week, but when I return I hope to be able to check this week's letter pages and let you know if your response was published.

If you have not already done so, I suggest keeping in touch with the Upstate South Carolina Secular Humanists at http://www.uscsh.org/

Alex_Kasman
Feb 15 2009
Re: Bill Connor - Greenville News Jan 31

The Greenville News did publish a response from Lee Dietz of the upstate secular humanists today. He wrote:

Re: "Secular humanist view slowly strangling us," by Bill Connor (Greenville News, Jan. 31).

Mr. Connor levels a number of accusations that need a response. He said, "Secular humanists already have their own identity license plate -- 'In Reason We Trust.'" He failed to say that Christians have theirs -- "In God We Trust." The Wiccans do not have theirs. Islam does not have their "identity license plate." How far will this go? Do we need another "religious plate (I Believe)" to identify Christians? Just live it: You'll identify yourself. What will be next -- Jesus Saves?

The writer said, "Secular humanism has demanded and taken over the public square." Just look around you. How many churches do you see? How many TV evangelists, Bibles, gospel tracts, radio preachers, Christian TV stations, etc., do you see? Now, look around -- how many humanist meeting places are there? How many humanists do you see preaching on the streets? There are four humanist groups in South Carolina and the writer has the gall to say we are "taking over the world." That is ridiculous!

Apparently Mr. Connor is opposed to the 200-plus years of church and state separation, a constitutional principle that has served both the church and the state well. Either they are separate or one believes in merging them together. Which church will be the "state church"? Maybe a church steeple would look nice on a dollar bill or stained glass windows in the Statehouse or a picture of Jesus on a nickel. That's what would be next.

Lee Deitz, Greenville

When I inquired whether they would be publishing mine as well, they pointed out that it was much longer than their 250 word limit would allow. So, I have trimmed it significantly and attempted to resubmit it. It now reads:

Connor's piece contains two significant errors regarding "separation

of church and state".

He is clearly mistaken in claiming that Jefferson was not

referring to the Constitution's Establishment Clause when he coined

this phrase. One only has to read the entire sentence to see that he

was:

"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American

people which declared that their legislature should make no law

respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise

thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state."

- T. Jefferson, 1802

Second, Connor fails to make the important distinction between

individuals and government. In contrast to his

suggestion, we strongly support his right to display his religious

identity on his car using bumper stickers, painting messages on the

car, or hanging something from his mirror if he so chooses. The

problem with the proposed "I Believe" plate is not that it allows

individuals religious expression, but that the legislature -- in

making this and "In God We Trust" the only government sponsored plates

with a religious statement -- is expressing the religious preference

of the state government.

Like Connor, we believe in religious freedom for individuals and

private organizations. Where we differ with him -- but agree with

Presidents Jefferson and Madison and the Supreme Court -- is that we

believe the Constitution forbids government entities from doing the

same, and that this restriction is partially responsible for the

religious freedom we enjoy.

Alex Kasman / Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry

eugenegill
Mar 12 2009
Re: Bill Connor - Greenville News Jan 31

Alex's letter was published, and this letter was printed in response:

"Car tag does not establish religion

A recent letter by Alex Kasman, in reference to the separation of church and state, expresses a misdirected view of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution on a states' rights issue.

(1) Mr. Kasman quoted Jefferson (in 1802) regarding the often-quoted "wall separating church and state." We must be mindful that this Jeffersonian quote was 13 years after the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, which Jefferson did not draft, and that much can change in one's opinion on ideas in the span of 13 years, especially upon attaining the office of president.

(2) Mr. Kasman's problem with the S.C. license plate language is that it is clearly addressed to the U.S. Constitution, but incorrectly so, as most certainly the management and issuance of motor vehicle tags is a states' rights issue and not a power mandated to the federal government under the U.S. Constitution.

(3) Even if one were to hold state-issued license plate language to the letter of the U.S. Constitution as Mr. Kasman does, it fails the test of the Establishment Clause in that the First Amendment clearly states that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof; ..." The statements "I Believe" or "In God We Trust" are not the establishment of religion, but the state government heeding the second part of the Establishment Clause.

But the crux of this whole language on car tags argument is that such language is the expression of the individual in a deity, not a religion. And last I checked, South Carolina offers more than one or two car tag formats and language from which to choose.

Jim Werther, Greenville"

Alex_Kasman
Mar 13 2009
Re: Bill Connor - Greenville News Jan 31

I may try to send a response directly to Mr. Werther. (There is a James Werther whose address is listed in Greenville...but it may not be the same man who wrote this letter.) In any case, this is what I would say:

Dear Mr. Werther,

Thank you for writing a reply to my letter which appeared in the Greenville News. Just as you consider my view to be "misdirected", I think you also make some errors...and you fail to address what I consider to be my key point. However, you also raise some interesting and difficult topics. Please allow me to respond to your remarks individually.

(1) Mr. Kasman quoted Jefferson (in 1802) regarding the often-quoted "wall separating church and state." We must be mindful that this Jeffersonian quote was 13 years after the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, which Jefferson did not draft, and that much can change in one's opinion on ideas in the span of 13 years, especially upon attaining the office of president.

I am afraid I may not understand your point here. It is true that this quote was from a letter written when he was President and more than a decade after the Constitution was written. But, I would have thought that time to think about it and having the rare honor of serving as our nation's president would have made his remark more relevant, not less so.

In any case, you are quite mistaken if you think that Jefferson did not clearly express the same view much earlier. In 1779, Jefferson authored a religious freedom bill in the state of Virginia (passed by the legislature in 1786) which is one of the most eloquent descriptions of church/state separation ever written. It makes it completely clear that he believed it would be better for religion and politics both if the government remained entirely neutral on religious matters many years before he coined the phrase "wall of separation" to describe it.

Also, as you point out, Jefferson was not the author of the Constitution. James Madison is generally recognized as the author of the Constitution. However, Madison's views on church/state separation are even closer to my own than to Jefferson's! (The reason I discussed Jefferson rather than Madison in my letter was to correct an error made by Connor. Otherwise, Madison would have been a much better person for me to quote.)

Madison's extreme views on church/state separation were well known before he was asked to draft the Constitution and before he was elected president. At various times during this period, his belief that the government should be entirely neutral on matters of religion compelled him to argue against using tax money to fund teachers of Christianity, to argue that the president should not call for a "day of prayer", and even that the US military should not employ chaplains!

In fact, I think that Madison and Jefferson would have had different opinions about our "In God We Trust" plates in South Carolina. Of course, they didn't know what a car was and that was not the national motto until the 1950's, but I think Jefferson (who liked to include references to his deistic "Creator" in many of his writings) would have approved while Madison would have objected.

In any case, their writings make it clear that both this author of the Declaration of Independence and the author of the US Constitution would have opposed the "I Believe" plate with a cross, both before and after serving as Presidents. You certainly can argue that they were wrong. They, like you and I, were only human and can make mistakes. However, it is nothing less than "rewriting history" when those trying to mix government and religion pretend that none of these founding fathers of our nation believed in church/state separation.

(2) Mr. Kasman's problem with the S.C. license plate language is that it is clearly addressed to the U.S. Constitution, but incorrectly so, as most certainly the management and issuance of motor vehicle tags is a states' rights issue and not a power mandated to the federal government under the U.S. Constitution.

This is a much more interesting topic. In fact, it is inarguably true that the Bill of Rights was originally interpreted as applying only to the Federal Government. It was only later that it was realized that letting the state and local governments violate the rights guaranteed to citizens by the Constitution made them vacuous. In other words, like the idea that the vice-president would be the person who received the second largest number of votes in the presidential election, it was an error in the original design of the country made by the very wise but still fallible founding fathers. Like that other error, it was corrected...but it was corrected through the courts rather than through the legislature.

So, perhaps one could argue that this change was never really made since it is only the decision of the courts to apply it at all levels. I really wish the Constitution had been specifically amended to say that these rules apply to state, city and local governments as well, since that would then eliminate this line of argument.

But, one would need to be very careful about trying to argue that way.

For one thing, it would definitely be a minority view. The vast majority of legislators and judges for more than 100 years have interpreted the Bill of Rights as restricting all local governments as well as the federal government.

More importantly, people have really gotten used to these rights. Could the state of Florida begin to arrest people and throw them in prisons without a trial and claim that only the federal government is restricted from doing so? Could the state of New York make all guns illegal? (Interestingly, many people who raise the "states rights" argument in 1st amendment issues would never do the same for the 2nd amendment.)

(3) Even if one were to hold state-issued license plate language to the letter of the U.S. Constitution as Mr. Kasman does, it fails the test of the Establishment Clause in that the First Amendment clearly states that "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibit the free exercise thereof; ..." The statements "I Believe" or "In God We Trust" are not the establishment of religion, but the state government heeding the second part of the Establishment Clause.

But the crux of this whole language on car tags argument is that such language is the expression of the individual in a deity, not a religion.

I agree that this is the crux of the issue. What exactly does "establishment of religion" mean? Having read many writings of Madison and Jefferson on this topic, I think that it was intended to be a much broader restriction than many people think. However, even if we take it at its most narrow interpretation, "establishment of religion" would mean declaring an official state religion.

According to Wikipedia: "Christianity (from the word X?????? "Christ") is a monotheistic religion centered on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in the New Testament." Even though it can be divided into sects, Christianity is a religion. According to the establishment clause, the government can no more declare Christianity to be the official state religion than it can declare Islam to be so.

Now, when the legislature voted to offer this "I Believe" plate with a cross on it, were they essentially declaring Christianity to be the state religion? That is certainly a debatable point. However, aided by some quotations from overly honest legislators, AU was able to convince the judges that this is exactly what they thought they were doing, and it was therefore found to be an example of "establishment of religion".

And last I checked, South Carolina offers more than one or two car tag formats and language from which to choose.

Exactly, I really do not think this is a "free speech" issue as Connor framed it to be. His right to express his religious beliefs on his car is not in question since he can put them on a bumper sticker, and there are many tags for individuals to choose from.

Finally, let me return to the main point. To me, the main point has nothing to do with the license plate. I really did not care much about the license plate when it was first announced. I had no plans to protest it or write a letter to the newspaper about it. Rather, my letter was about Connor's article which claimed (in the title) "Secular humanist viewpoint slowly strangling us". Contained in this are two misrepresentations that I wanted to (and still want to) argue against. One is that the idea of complete church/state separation is a new thing invented by secular humanists like me. Secondly, the idea that preventing the state from issuing a religious license plate is "strangling us" is ridiculous. Connor should and does have the freedom to publicly express his religious beliefs in many ways, including on his car, whether or not the "I Believe" plate is an option. Argue against it if you wish, but do not forget that church/state separation is an idea that has been influential in this country since its earliest days and that it is supported by people with many different religious viewpoints who believe that rather than "strangling us" by preventing religious expression, it is largely responsible for the religious freedom we enjoy in this country.

-Alex

Justin
Mar 16 2009
Re: Bill Connor - Greenville News Jan 31

The primary legal problem with the "I Believe" plates was that a club or non-profit organization was not the sponsor. The state was the official sponsor, as successfully argued by ASC&S.

Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry is a club.

I think that a church could legally set up its own license tag by following the same rules as any other non-profit organization. The catch would be that each church would have to have its own tag.

This would be an interesting way for the State of SC to raise some money, although I think that most higher Protestant and some Roman Catholic members would find the tags, dare I say it, tacky.

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