Religion & Public Life With Mark Silk

I’m delighted to be joining Beliefnet’s News and Politics stable. I remember when the site was just a gleam in Steve Waldman’s eye, and a couple of years ago had the pleasure of filling his blogging shoes when he went on vacation. In the online religion world, there’s no place like this one.

Over the years I’ve wandered back and forth between academic and journalistic life–from studying and teaching medieval history to freelance writing and editing to daily newspapering to directing a center for the study of religion in public life. Blogging combines both lines of work. It’s opinion writing with footnotes.

A few years of putting together editorials and columns for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution taught me that a good piece of opinion aims to instruct as well as persuade, to entertain as well as analyze. Instead of preaching to the choir, I’d rather have a go at the skeptical who have somehow found their way into the pews. Maybe they won’t be convinced, but at least I can hope to send them home with something to think about. If you want to see how I’ve been doing, you can check it out here. See you around. 

FirstCathedralPraise.JPGHard as it may be to believe, the Supreme Court has never ruled on whether holding a high school graduation in a church violates the constitutional ban on religious establishments. But there was more than enough jurisprudence lying around for a U.S. District Judge to enjoin the town of Enfield, Connecticut from graduating its seniors at First Cathedral, a Baptist megachurch in Bloomfield. Yesterday, Judge Janet Hall found it likely that the plaintiffs would persuade a court that this would constitute impermissible endorsement of religion, excessive entanglement of government with religion, and religious coercion. That’s a slam dunk that makes you wonder what the other side had in mind.

What they seem to have in mind is taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court. Back in January, after the ACLU raised objections, the Enfield School Board voted to move graduation to a secular venue. But then, in roared an anti-same-sex marriage outfit called the Family Institute of Connecticut with promises that the American Center for Law and Justice would take on the case pro bono if the School Board changed its mind. Led by the white evangelical pastor–yes we have a few of these in Connecticut–who chairs the Board, that’s exactly what happened, and the test case ensued.

Some of the preliminary argumentation was pretty ludicrous. For example, there was the question of the religious imagery scattered around First Cathedral. Here’s how the judge, in a footnote, summed up the contrasting views of Archbishop LeRoy Bailey, the Cathedral’s pastor, and the Rev. Dr. Frank Kirkpatrick, the learned theologian from Trinity College that the ACLU enlisted on its side:

For example, Reverend Kirkpatrick believes the fountain in the lobby represented a baptismal font, but Bailey does not; Kirkpatrick believes Jesus Christ is represented by a dove, but Bailey does not; Kirkpatrick believes the fish depicted in the carpet “represent[s] one of the most important symbols in the Christian tradition,” but Bailey does not; Kirkpatrick believes the image of the chalice embodies “the blood of Jesus which Christians believe he shed for humankind at his crucifixion,” but Bailey believes it represents “community.” Although the two religious officials agree that the cross is a Christian symbol, the record is replete with evidence that there are significant disagreements as to which symbols and images have religious meaning, and which do not. The imagery referenced in paragraph six of the affidavit is particularly controversial, as it depicts historical scenes, biblical parables, and passages from scripture, which Bailey characterizes as “eclectic” and “not religious.”

What the ACLJ really wants to argue, it appears, is that churches have a First Amendment right to provide the same services for fees from the government that non-religious entities do. And given the unsettled state of the Supreme Court’s current approach to the Establishment Clause, who knows? But why, then, try to pretend that a Christian church is just a House of Eclecticism?