Seamus Hasson: Knight of Religious Freedom

Published December 7, 2005

Kevin Hasson – “Seamus” to one and all – is the founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm and educational institute, and a true hero of contemporary Catholicism. Now, after a decade of legal work in defense of the “first freedom,” Seamus has written his first book, The Right to be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America (Encounter).

As his Irish name might suggest, Hasson is a great story-teller, and The Right to Be Wrong begins with a corker – How the Parking Barrier Became Divine, and Thus Caused Problems. Let Seamus tell it in his way:

“…The Japanese Tea Garden of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park….had long been a particularly well-groomed part of the park, a haven from the stresses of urban life. [In 1989, though] there was a problem. A crane operator had abandoned a traffic or parking barrier at the back of the tea garden. It was a small, bullet-shaped lump of granite that clashed with the ordered nature of the place, an irritant that park-goers periodically tried to have removed. Bureaucrats being what they are, however, the stray parking barrier remained.

“It remained, that is, until 1993, when the bureaucrats learned of a New Age group’s interest in it. The New Agers…had recognized something significant about the shape of the parking barrier: it resembled a Shiva Lingam, a manifestation of the Hindu god Shiva. What was more, they had come upon it unexpectedly and in a wooded setting, just the way you’re supposed to discover a Shiva Lingam. The little band of believers had rejoiced and begun to worship. In fact, they now came regularly to pray and make offerings of incense and flowers to the stone bullet. All of which greatly alarmed the very same authorities who had resolutely neglected to remove the traffic barrier as an eyesore. The bureaucrats roused themselves and announced that it was their duty to prevent worship on (not to mention of) public property; the parking barrier had to go.

“Whereupon the New Agers…sued for an order blocking removal of the little granite lump…The authorities agreed to give the spare barrier to its devotees, who agreed to pray to it in private, someplace else.”

The tale of the divine parking barrier illustrates just how goofy American constitutional law on religious freedom has become since the Supreme Court began inverting the First Amendment in the 1947 case, Everson v. Board of Education. The Framers’ intent to foster a robust religious life in America by preventing the Federal government from “establishing” any denomination as the governmentally approved faith has now been turned inside out. Today, the First Amendment is widely understood to require, not simply governmental “neutrality” between denominations, or between belief and unbelief, but governmental suspicion of, bordering on hostility to, to any public manifestation of religious conviction in the public square.

As Hasson nicely puts it, “nobody could ever have mistaken parking-barrier worship for an officially established religion, even in San Francisco.” But the Supreme Court’s crabbed and cranky First Amendment jurisprudence, filtering down to the level of petty city bureaucrats, resulted in the removal of the eyesore-that-had-become-a-god, not because it was ugly and obtrusive but because somebody thought it was divine and behaved accordingly. Mr. Madison, call your office.

The Right to Be Wrong explores, historically and conceptually, the convictions that drive the Becket Fund: “Freedom of religion is a basic human right that no government may lawfully deny; it is not a gift of the state, but instead is rooted in the inherent dignity of the human person. Religious expression (of all traditions) is a natural part of life in a civilized society, and religious arguments (on all sides of a question) are a normal and healthy element of public debate. Religious people and institutions are entitled to participate in governmental affairs on an equal basis with everyone else, and should not be excluded for professing their faith.” It’s now been forty years since Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom. Celebrating Seamus Hasson’s accomplishment, and reading his book, are good ways to mark that historic anniversary.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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