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Snow Falling On Churches

Dan Tortorice

The recent snowstorm reminded me of why I dislike the ACLU. It may be hard to believe that one could dislike an organization whose purported purpose is to promote civil liberties, but I do. My dislike stems from a winter a few years back when the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the town of Barrington, Rhode Island (not too far from my home town), challenging the town’s practice of sending snowplows to the parking lots of religious institutions in the town. The plowing did not apply to only a select group of religious institutions, but to all in the town. Yet the ACLU saw this as an establishment of religion and threatened to take the town to court if they plowed the parking lots. So the town conceded and did not plow the lots.

It is not clear that the ACLU was on the correct side of the law. In Agostini v. Felton (1997) the Supreme Court, overturning a previous ruling, held that New York could pay public school teachers to also teach in parochial schools. The parallel to the snowplow case is clear. Just as states can aid religious institutions by sending them teachers, states can also aid religious institutions by sending them snowplows. The ruling affirms that government need no longer be completely separate from religion. It must only refrain from favoring one religion over another.

The ACLU also would have a hard time arguing that they were on the correct side of justice. Clearly if the town were plowing only the Episcopalian Churches the ACLU could argue the government was establishing one religion over another, but this was not the case. They were plowing the lots of all religious institutions in the town. Likewise, there was no coercion of citizens. No one was forced to attend mass just because they could now get to the Catholic Church more easily.

Perhaps a stronger position for the ACLU to take would be to argue that the plowing was tantamount to an endorsement of religion. But I doubt they would remain consistent to this logic and also argue that providing police protection to marching Klansmen is a government endorsement of racism, that providing clean needles to heroine addicts is an endorsement of drug use, and providing condoms in high schools is an endorsement of statutory rape. Just because the government aids an individual in pursuing an activity does not mean the government approves, much less endorses, the activity. The plowing need not be seen as an endorsement of religion, but as an act of respect for the town’s citizens. The government recognizes that religion is important to its citizens and provides them with means to explore religious beliefs if they wish.

Perhaps you may feel it is unjust to use taxpayer money for the snow removal. Clearly there are people who do not accept any religion; why should they have to pay to aid religions? Maybe this is unfair, but we never make this exception in any other aspect of society. The religious fundamentalist must still pay his property taxes, even though part of that money funds the teaching of evolution in our schools. I still must pay my taxes even if I object to its use in fighting the war in Afghanistan. The government often spends taxpayer money in ways that offend the principles of some taxpayers, even religious principles. And government does this with the blessing of the Supreme Court.

What the ACLU endorses, and what the Supreme Court has wisely moved away from, is a government that treats religion like an infectious agent. A government believing that if it has even the most neutral and minimal involvement with religion, this involvement will spread to the point where the government takes a stance on religion. Yet this is not true. By plowing the lots of all religious institutions the government is not taking a stance on religion. It does not say it is good to believe in God; rather, it says that if you wish to worship God we respect that and will do what we can to let you exercise that choice. The ACLU desires government that is not at all neutral when it comes to religion. It falls squarely in the camp of the secularists. For in the government the ACLU wants, towns can give no aid to religions, allow religious symbols to be displayed on their land, or use their buildings for religious purposes. This government is exactly the government we would have if the government espoused the values of agnostics. Intentionally or unintentionally, government should not favor one belief system over another. Instead it should encourage people of all faiths and all people without faith to express the convictions of their hearts and carry out the search for meaning in this complex world.

If it were that I just disagreed with the ACLU’s position, I would not have contempt for the institution. I dislike the ACLU because on one hand they claim to be the champion of civil liberties but on the other hand sue institutions knowing these institutions would rather concede to the ACLU’s demands than face an expensive, drawn-out court battle. In the case of Barrington, Rhode Island, the courts may very well have upheld up the snowplowing. But the town conceded, rather than fighting the ACLU in court. By using these legal intimidation tactics the ACLU enforces not America’s civil liberties, but their own self-determined civil liberties.