Dispatches from the Culture Wars has an interesting report on the removal of a Buddhist stupa from a national park in New Mexico. He quotes the local public radio explanation:
The National Park Service said Monday that park service will remove the ten-foot structure containing Buddhist relics from the park this week after getting an opinion from the Department of Interior’s solicitor general. The solicitor general ruled last month that keeping the Buddhist stupa violates the Constitution on established religion.
If this is actually the gist of the ruling, the lawyer with the solicitor general’s office must be one of the stupider people to actually make it through law school.
The Establishment Clause prohibits government from sponsoring or endorsing religious beliefs or observances. In determining whether there has been a breach of the rule, the Court considers whether a person of average intelligence, observing the display or incident, would assume that endorsement or sponsorship was present. So in the case of graduation prayer, for example, an invitation by the school to a clergyman and the inclusion of the prayer in the formal program is pretty clearly sponsorship. A group of students gathering spontaneously at the school flagpole to pray, without prompting or participation from teachers or school administrators, is not.
If a person of normal intelligence (perhaps that’s the problem!) encountered a Christian devotional display in a park, that person could reasonably assume it was government endorsement of the country’s majority religion. No one in her right mind, however, would leap to the conclusion that a display of Buddhist artifacts was intended as anything other than an educational or artistic experience. (I can imagine the testimony of the New Mexico parks official now: “Yes, your honor, I placed that Buddhist stupa in the park in order to elevate Buddhist beliefs and send a message that Christians and Jews and Muslims worship false gods and are second-class citizens…”)
The really interesting question here is: who complained? And why?
I have my suspicions, and they revolve around the folks who believe the government should privilege their religion.