In Texas, public officials regularly use public funds and public power in ways that make non-Christians feel like second-class citizens who are not welcome, or at least, not equal.
Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton did this most recently by supporting the Brewster County sheriff’s effort to put Christian crosses on patrol cars.
Before that, Abbott forced the removal from the Capitol of a properly permitted display erected by the Freedom From Religion Foundation that, he claimed, mocked the Christian faith.
And before that, Abbott and Paxton supported the efforts of cheerleaders at Kountze High School to use banners to display Bible verses on the football field.
The list of publicly endorsed and publicly funded religious activities goes on and on.
Although I believe that these actions violate the U.S. Constitution, the real issue is whether Texans want non-Christians to feel unwelcome here. And let there be no mistake: Governmental endorsements of any religion alienate people who do not share the favored faith.
Having been born into a Jewish family and learned about the Spanish Inquisition, Cossack-led pogroms in Eastern Europe, and the Holocaust, I can tell you that I do not want a police car bearing a Christian cross pulling up behind me with its lights flashing and sirens blaring. The combination of religion and government muscle hasn’t been good for the Jews.
Nor when attending a public meeting do I want elected officials invoking the words of Jesus, Mohammed, or the God of the Old Testament. I just want to feel welcome as a Texan on an equal basis with everyone else. That can happen easily. Just leave religion out of the state-supported sphere.
Eliminating public endorsements of religion would leave people free to display their personal support. At football games, students could wave religious banners while sitting in the stands.
They’d just have to use their own resources to make them. Police officers could wear crosses around their necks. They’d just have to buy them themselves. And people would be free to take a knee and pray whenever and wherever they like.
The only thing no one would be able to do is use public funds or government power to advance a religious cause.
Some Christians argue that they should be allowed to use public funds for religious purposes because they pay taxes too. Yes, we all pay taxes, but taxes aren’t supposed to be tithes.
Can you imagine being forced to pay taxes to support a church, a mosque, or a synagogue, especially one to which you do not belong? That’s not supposed to happen in America.
But it does when governments use tax dollars to finance religious activities. Instead of doing that, they should cut taxes and let people use the freed-up money to fund religious events and institutions directly, if they are so inclined.
When supporting the Brewster County sheriff, Gov. Abbott tries to skirt the prohibition on public support for religion by secularizing the cross. He argues that “[i]n addition to its religious significance, the cross has a long history in America and elsewhere as a symbol of service and sacrifice.”
Part of me is “amazed that a public official would seek to downplay the religious significance of a cross, which rightfully holds a special, sacred place in Christianity,” as Ken Herman, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, observed. But part of me is worried about a deeper problem too.
Allowing an elected official to secularize a symbol that millions of Christians actively use as an emblem of their faith eviscerates the line between church and state.
Simply by observing that crosses, prayers, scriptures, sculptures, paintings, churches, oaths and even ministers have secular functions and histories, which they all do, a public official could spend unlimited amounts of public money promoting religious observances. A barrier surmounted that easily does not merit the label.
Texas is a diverse state, racially, ethnically, politically and religiously. But there is one respect in which uniformity should prevail: The many local governments of Texas should make every Texan feel equal before the law and welcome everywhere in the state. For that to happen, the separation of church and state must be scrupulously observed.
Charles Silver is the Roy W. and Eugenia C. McDonald Endowed Chair in Civil Procedure at the School of Law at The University of Texas at Austin.
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