- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2004

Over the past few years, the American Civil Liberties Union has intensified its attacks on religious symbols throughout America, arguing that religious activities or symbols that are implicitly or explicitly sanctioned by the government are prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. From local communities that display nativity scenes to city seals that bear religious insignia, no public display of religion is exempt. Most recently, the ACLU has targeted the Los Angeles County seal, which bears an image of the cross. The ACLU seems to aim at nothing short of a complete eradication of religion from the public sphere.

The ACLU’s war against religion reveals the unfortunate twist that Establishment Clause jurisprudence has taken in recent years. Instead of being read to restrain government, the way the founders intended, it’s instead read as a restriction on religion. By the ACLU’s reckoning, the government cannot pay for learning equipment for the developmentally disabled if they attend private, parochial schools. This argument was even brought before a federal appeals court in the case of Zobrest v. Arizona, where the majority ruled that a deaf child, upon transferring to a parochial school, was no longer eligible for government assistance. The case then reached the Supreme Court, which reversed the appeals court despite an amicus brief urging affirmance filed by the ACLU.

Traditionally, the government’s refusal to subsidize an activity raises the question of whether that activity is a legitimate one. The government refrains, for example, from funding pornography, out of concern for its corrosive effect on public morals. A refusal to allow public funds to go toward religion, by implication, raises the question of whether religious activities themselves are worthy ones.

That’s a bizarre concept indeed for a republic “whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being,” as the Supreme Court put it in 1952. Indeed, the individual rights that the ACLU professes to hold so dear find their ultimate grounding in the religious and moral understandings that the ACLU seeks to eliminate. The Establishment Clause was written merely to prevent an official state establishment of religion, not to eliminate religion from the public sphere. What a long way we’ve come.

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