I wrote recently about the persecution Chinese Christian were receiving at the hands of the atheistic Chinese government.
In the post I made the claim New Atheism would have little basis for opposing such repression given their low opinion of religious belief to begin with. The closest any atheist response came to defending religious freedom in China was this one:
However, official government active discouragement of religion is a non-starter in the United States or any Western society. I’m an American, I can’t solve all the world’s problems, and I have limited interest in and limited influence on Chinese government policy. The Chinese government is fundamentally the business and problem of the Chinese people: they, not I, have to live with the consequences.
Unfortunately, thanks to a recent court ruling, this defense no longer applies in New York where a court has ruled churches cannot meet in schools on weekends:
New York City may again block religious groups from using school facilities outside of regular school hours for “religious worship services,” a federal appeals court inManhattan ruled on Thursday.
Deciding 2 to 1, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit said the city had “a strong basis to believe” that allowing the religious services to be conducted in schools could be seen as the kind of endorsement of religion that violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
“When worship services are performed in a place,” Judge Pierre N. Leval wrote for the majority, “the nature of the site changes. The site is no longer simply a room in a school being used temporarily for some activity.”
In many ways it is this last bit of reasoning that is most troubling. The idea that a particular activity in a place can ‘change the nature of the site’ by its mere presence within the four walls of a building would suggest that words and ideas and purposes are tangible things that taint physical buildings.
It would suggest a few students have religious conversations or pray in a dorm room at a State University wouldturn it into a church. Or that a faith-based organization helping drug addicts would turn a community center room into church by quoting Scripture. If a few people met at a house for a Bible study, would zoning laws that determine where churches could be built come into effect?
This is an issue that hits close to home for me. I have both been the member of a church that met in a school, and am a school board member of a public school that has a church meeting at it. There are actually many benefits to schools for such arrangements. Beside paying rent and providing extra income to budget starved schools, churches (especially in low income areas) will often provide supplies and other goods that impoverished students don’t have, like clothing and meals. Many times churches will help upgrade equipment and facilities that are mutually beneficial. And quite often the churches extend their involvement to the community at large. That has certainly been my experience.
Like China, those who oppose the presence of religious organizations inNew York don’t actually have to jail congregants or physically harm believers to diminish their ability to exercise their faith. All they have to do is find bureaucratic or legal reasons to keep them from occupying spaces within a community – and they effectively keep them from having a presence in the society at all.
There is of course no basis for this in our history – church services were famously held at the US Capitol building for over 50 years, services which were attended by Jefferson and Madison.
Given the reluctance of American atheists to speak out against religious suppression in other countries, one wonders if they can find a reason to oppose it in their own?