16 August 2011

Getting It Really, Really Wrong

In an 1892 case: HOLY TRINITY CHURCH v. U.S. the Supreme Court held that a law prohibiting the importation of workers did not apply to churches because that application was not what Congress intended. Much has been made of this case in contemporary conservative circles because the Court based its decision on a logic tree that says:
  • America does a lot of official or cultural things that can be called "Christian."
  • Congress operates in a "Christian Culture" because each house it begins its sessions with a prayer.
  • Therfore this is a "Christian Country."
  • Accordingly Congress clearly could not intend to restrict Christian churches.

Put this one down in the "right outcome -- wrong logic" column. It is possible to construct a reasoned argument against the statute on the basis that it fails the second half of the establishment clause, that is it prohibits the free exercise of religion. The statute is also arguably unconstitutionally vague. No jurist writing today would argue against it on the basis of the intent of Congress and the "Christian country" idea. In fact, were that argument advanced by a court below, it is likely the Supreme Court would dismiss it out of hand.

There are any number of 19th century opinions that are now so dismissed. The Dread Scott decision, and Plesy v Furgeson come to mind. The first affirmed that slavery was legal and that therefore the "owner" of Dread Scott, an escaped slave, has entitled to compel authorities in a "free State" to return him to slavery. The second case affirmed the idea that different "races" could be considered to have legal equality if the State mandated "separate but equal" services and accommodations. Both have been overturned but they were at one point the opinion of th Court.

To argue as some of Rick Perry's clergy supporters do, that this decision's observation that America is a Christian Country means Moslems have no access to the First Amendment is not merely wrong it is lunacy. Even if the governing decision over 100 years ago was this case: it is not now. The Court has recognized the plural nature of American belief in many cases, notable Murray v O'Hare. Somehow these people, apparently including Gov. Perry and the "New American Reformation," have not gotten the word.

John Adams wrote that America is not a Christian Country in a treaty which has the force of law as the Senate affirmed it. That too seems to be invisible to these people.

None of this is surprising. These people misread the Bible too, and do it with equal inappropriate selectivity. ::sigh:: These people are dangerous. They actually think their misreading of both the Constitution and Bible is divinely inspired. Gov. Perry accused Mr. Bernanke of treason last night! It appears the Governor missed the restrictive definition of treason in the Constitution.

Issac Asimov observed:
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."
Isaac Asimov, column in Newsweek (21 January 1980)
True then and true today. But today we think of the cultists as serious presidential candidates.

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