Spokane Washington Chaplains Lose Crosses: A Lesson on the First Amendment

Or, How One Guy’s Hatred of God, Combined With His Inability to Read the Constitution, Cost Washington Taxpayers Money and Forced His Ignorant Views on Spokane Cops

Frankly, I considered posting this on Faith&Wonder, my religious blog.  After all, I think what I’m about to discuss here really has to do with one man’s fear of the Cross.  But that’s a little deeper than I want to get with this.  What I really want to talk about here is a proper understanding of the First Amendment.  Too many people don’t get it; and this is the latest in a string of events and suits that prove the point.

Ray Ideus, a volunteer with the Spokane, WA police department (an ex-pastor-turned-atheist, as it turns out) took the department to court because the crosses on the badges of the police chaplains offended him.  Assistant City Attorney “Rocky” Treppiedi filed countersuit because Ideus’ lawsuit was idiotic.  Okay, Treppiedi said it was “false and unfounded, malicious and without probable cause.”  Po-tay-to,  po-tah-to. 

But, then, Spokane caved, gave the guy what he wanted and agreed to drop their countersuit — and called it a “settlement.”

Actually, I have to hand it to Spokane.  The suit even being brought up wasted taxpayer money.  A protracted court battle would have wasted more taxpayer money.  But here’s the kicker: depending on the judge, and his/her understanding of the Constitution, they could have won.  Was a legal smackdown against a 75-year-old man worth the court fees the taxpayers would have put up?  Probably not.  On the other hand, on top of being hilariously satisfying, they might well have gotten this case all the way up the ladder.  And, if our current crop of Supreme Court Justices are feeling like correctly interpreting Constitutional law, this case could well have created a precedent on State’s Rights that actually takes an accurate view of the First Amendment (as opposed to the travesty that is Engel vs. Vitale).

People take the “Establishment Clause” of the First Amendment to mean a whole lot of things that, put simply, it doesn’t mean.  So, let’s take a quick look at it:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

Now, the second part is the part the ACLU doesn’t really like to talk about very often.  They like the first part a lot better — the “establishment clause.”  Interesting, in a group purporting to be interested in civil “liberty.”  But I digress.  The first part says, “Congress shall make no law.”  In the language of the Constitution, “Congress” refers specifically to federal legislators.  Not State government.  This is why the amendment was worded in this manner.  The Founding Fathers did not want another “Church of England” or official “Roman Catholic Church.”  They did not want a national religion, nor did they want any federal regulation of religious practice.  That’s it.  There is no “separation of church and state.”  It doesn’t exist.

Spokane, WA, in putting crosses on the badges of police chaplains does not violate the Establishment Clause.  Neither does school prayer.  Strictly speaking, if Utah wanted to make Mormonism the official State Religion, they are constitutionally allowed to do so.  Really.  They cannot prohibit somebody from practicing their own religion — “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” takes care of that.  But if they want their schools to teach the History of Mormonism, and have their cops sport Mormon symbolism, according to a constructionist reading of the Constitution, they have that right.

But here’s the wider view — the real reason this story caught my attention: Federal Armed Forces chaplains sporting Christian imagery also does not violate the establishment clause.  The establishment clause does not prohibit government from practicing religion, nor from allowing religion, even among official government actors.  The establishment clause prohibits these chaplains, or any member of the United States Government, from declaring or enforcing, implicitly or explicitly an “official religion.”  This doesn’t mean the government is disallowed from providing Christian chaplains — or chaplains of any other religion.

The Supreme Court in 1962 disagreed with this reading of the Constitution.  And they were wrong.  I’m looking forward to a similar case coming before a Supreme Court who reads the Constitution, instead of reinterpreting to fit personal political ideology.  I understand and applaud the decision of Spokane, WA, to save taxpayer money in not pursuing this.  Perhaps it’s not yet the right time.  But maybe, if we can get a President who will select constructionist judges instead of bench legislators, the right time will come soon.  And maybe, emboldened by the “success” of Ray Ideus, somebody else will bring suit.  And maybe, hopefully, the defendent in that case will find it both necessary and worthwhile to bring it all the way the highest court.



2 Responses to “Spokane Washington Chaplains Lose Crosses: A Lesson on the First Amendment”

  1. Good thoughts, I’ve posted on the 1st amendment before myself, Not alot of people understand it, or the intentions of its authors. My guess would be 3/4 of Americans would argue with you that it says there is to be a seperation of church and state

  2. You state this arguement so well that I’m going to post a link to this on my website at http://www.pinnaclecascade.com

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