Wednesday, July 31, 2013
The Naval Academy has its share of controversies, as does any institution. Some are serious, other silly. Still others hover somewhere in the grey area between the two. And there are shades of grey.
I think this latest ‘controversy’ is securely planted in the shady grey area. In what I suspect they suspect is a shrewd PR move, the American Humanist Association has threatened a lawsuit if the Academy does not allow a recent graduate to have his humanist themed wedding at the Academy’s chapel. The chapel is one of three venues for religious services on the Yard, and is one of the landmarks of the Yard, its dome easily visible for miles around. Its interior is equally impressive.
David (damn the torpedoes) Farragut.
I don’t know the story as to how the AHA got involved with the graduate’s request, whether post facto, or from the beginning, but the argument seems to be that he is being unfairly deprived of a fantastic setting for a wedding because he is not Christian. The chapel is intended for use by all Christian denominations. There is a separate Jewish facility on the yard,
..as well as a ‘non-denominational’ chapel, located below the big chapel. In addition, there are various other venues (some impressive, others not) for use by alumni and others.
According to the story, the request was denied, and several of these other venues offered. That did not satisfy the ensign. At some point the legal team at the AHA became involved, and they drafted the letter.
I won’t pretend to know the legal niceties, but will confess to being perplexed at what I see as a conceptual contradiction, if not conflation, taken up, I believe, with the intent of arguing for the position. In short, it sure looks like this organization, proudly proclaiming its enlightenment era stance of being non-religious, argues its case on the grounds that, at least legally, humanism counts as a religion, because it purports to be a comprehensive world view, just as religions claim to be. By the term ‘comprehensive’ is meant, a world view that gives some sort of support for a code of ethics and way of life, along with a big picture cosmology and some stance as to how we humans fit into that cosmos and its history.
Parts of the letter argue this way. For instance:
The Establishment Clause of the Constitution, as part of its mandate of a separation of church and state, forbids government from promoting or favoring any particular religious views.
In particular, the Supreme Court has interpreted it to forbid the government from preferring or favoring “those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.” Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U.S. 488, 495 (1961). “Secular Humanism” is included among the latter group of “religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God.”
The implication here is that anyone that is otherwise qualified for use of the chapel has a right to use of the facility, just so long as he/she can claim to be a part of an organization that has some such comprehensive world view, because all such comprehensive world views are, at least for legal purposes, religions.
But, I thought humanists were proudly non-religious. They’ve had a savvy PR campaign running recently, what with TV ads and bus sideboards plastered.
‘You don’t need God to be good’ Right?
‘Be good for goodness sake’ Right?
Well, other parts of the letter sure sound a more bracing tone, boldly delineating the humanists from the religious; saying in effect, ‘we are NOT a religion, but post religious! For instance:
“..The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.” Larson v. Valente, 456 U.S. 228, 244 (1982). Indeed, the government is forbidden not just from preferring one religion over another, but from preferring religion in general to non-religion. See Cnty. of Allegheny v. Am. Civil Liberties Union Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U.S. 573, 604 (1989).
Ensign Cruz has applied to be wed by a legally recognized wedding officiant in the Chapel, which is a National Historic Landmark and an “iconic . . . point of pride” in Annapolis. It appears that he has been denied this request because the Naval Academy wishes to confer the benefit of the Chapel’s beautiful architecture and capacious interior solely on Christians, to the exclusion of other religions and the nonreligious.
I’m confused. It sure looks like these folks want to have their cake and eat it. (An aside: I actually do think they are right about what should motivate one to act morally. One SHOULD do it because it is right, not for any other reason. I should refrain from stealing from my neighbor because it hurts that person, and without his consent, and I should not refrain because I am afraid I’ll be punished. I don’t think you need be a non-theist to see this point.)
Be that as it may, I cannot get past the impression that the humanists are gaming the system. More particularly, they are taking advantage of certain legal arguments and categorizations that are now on the books; accretions from the past. They use these in order to achieve their ends (be that publicity or looking out for the beleaguered non-theists of the world). All the while, in their hearts they do not believe that those categorizations are correct. But, heck, they’ve made a tactical choice. Why not play along with these flawed categorizations, even if they do strike at the heart of their most heartfelt self-image, the conviction that they are proudly non-religious?