Ethics & Public Policy Center

In Defense of the First Freedom

Published in The Catholic Difference on June 4, 1998



Then there was the sacred parking barrier.

It seems that the San Francisco highways department had left one of those ugly concrete parking barriers behind the tea garden in Golden Gate Park for years. It was an eye-sore and a nuisance. and park users regularly complained. The parking barrier stayed put. Then, San Francisco being the caricature of itself that it is, a New Age group decided that the parking barrier was God and began worshiping it. Faster than you could say, “I’m not making this up,” the city had the sacred parking barrier towed away in order to preserve, as the bureaucracy put it, “the constitutional separation of Church and state.”

Religious freedom has been suffering the death of a thousand cuts in the United States since the Second World War. What was intended as one religious freedom clause — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — was divided into two “religion clauses,” with “no establishment” and “free exercise” set in opposition to one another. After the Supreme Court had made that fatal move it was only a matter of time until “no establishment” became dominant and “free exercise” was reduced to something the government permitted when it pleased: the precise opposite of the Framers’ intention, which was to promote free exercise through the prohibition of a governmentally-sponsored national church.

The mutant “no establishment” virus has infected every organ of American public life. It is a rare community that has not been hit with what the lower federal courts call the “plastic reindeer rule,” which dictates that creches on public property are permissible only when Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi, and the rest of the biblical cast of characters are surrounded by plastic reindeer, snowpersons, and other seasonal gimcrack designed to neuter the display’s religious content. Courts are now busily striking down city seals with religious symbols, including crosses and religious heraldry.

Then there are the government schools. Why did Pittsburgh rename Christmas and Hanukkah “Sparkle Season”? Why do government school children, sometime in the Spring, get chocolate eggs from a creature called the “Special Bunny”? Why did Hillsborough, New Jersey’s schools ban (St.) Valentine’s Day, such that a first-grader with a crush on the little girl in the next row can only give her a “Special Person Card”?

Because in the name of “no establishment” the Supreme Court, the lower federal courts, and the federal and state bureaucracies are conducting an inquisition aimed at eliminating anything that hints of religious expression in American public life. James Madison, call your office.

Kevin Hasson abandoned a lucrative career at one of Washington’s top-drawer law firms to do something about all this. His reasoning was simple: there are public interest law firms agitating and litigating on behalf of every conceivable issue; why not have one agitating and litigating on behalf of religious freedom as the Framers of the Constitution and Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom understood it? Thus the Becket Fund was born, with the help of some wise philanthropic friends.

Hasson and his able staff have scored some significant successes recently. A Becket Fund intervention in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals helped overturn a district court decision, Bauchman v. West High School, which forbade a government school’s choir from including religious music in its repertoire. In Rigdon v. Perry, the Becket Fund sued and won on behalf of military chaplains who wanted to preach against partial-birth abortion contrary to a Defense Department directive not to do so.

Now, Hasson and Company are going for bigger game: the so-called “Blaine Amendments” to various state constitutions, which prohibit tax dollars from going to students (or the parents of students) attending religious schools. At the very least, Hasson argues, the first of these cases, Boyette v. Galvin in Massachusetts, will expose the Blaine Amendments as the products of 19th century religious bigotry.

Kevin Hasson — husband, father, professional — embodies Vatican II’s vision of a Catholic layman actively shaping the modern world according to the Gospel. If you want to know more about what he and his associates are up to, write them at The Becket Fund, Suite 3580, 2000 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W., Washington, DC 20036.

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

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