I am writing in response to Marjorie Preston’s opinion piece on public displays of religiosity (“Atheist demands are unconstitutional,” Dec. 5).
Ms. Preston argued that “atheists and civil rights organizations” are denying Christians their “right” to display the symbols of their religious belief. That claim is nonsense.
For context, let me state that I was reared in a Christian family; both of my parents were ordained ministers. I was taught that my religious faith was my concern, not the government’s, and that I should practice my faith without making it a matter of public display.
My parents firmly believed that one’s faith should show through in how one treated others, not in public displays of symbols or dogma.
There is nothing in the objections of “atheists and civil rights organizations” to the display of sectarian religious symbols on government property or at government expense that impedes, in any way, Ms. Preston’s constitutional right to practice her faith.
Rather, the objection is to her insistence on receiving government support for her beliefs. She wants the government to erect symbols of her faith on government property at government expense.
That is unquestionably a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. It is providing tangible government support to a specific religious belief.
Ms. Preston’s understanding of the establishment clause is badly distorted by her belief in the absolute righteousness of her religious faith. The courts have consistently interpreted that clause to mean that the government is barred from showing any preference for one faith over others, not just from requiring that citizens practice a governmentally preferred faith.
Posting Christian symbols on government buildings or property is just the kind of preferential treatment of Christianity that courts have consistently held to violate the establishment clause. This might be clearer to Ms. Preston if she considered how she would feel if a government agency decided to erect a Buddhist shrine on its grounds.
If Ms. Preston were to place a nativity scene or a cross on her own property or that of her church, I am quite sure that the “atheists” of whom she complains would not object. Further, I am absolutely certain that the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), to which she alludes, would not only not object, but would defend her right to do so.
Those Christians who want the government to participate in public displays of their faith should re-read the passages in the Gospels where Jesus addressed public displays of religiosity.
He excoriated the Pharisees for their practice of ostentatiously praying in public places and enjoined his followers to do their praying in private.
His modern-day followers should heed that injunction.
Gans lives in Napa.