Separation of Church and State and Buddhists

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.


  1. So, are you suggesting that a Christian display on public property is always “government endorsement of the country’s majority religion” and never “an educational or artistic experience?”

    While I agree that government (and the usual hysterical people) don’t use common sense when someone shouts religion in a public place, the government needs to treat all religions the same. In this case, artistic displays, regardless of the source of the inspiration, should have been allowed to remain to enrich the experience of all visitors.

    The antics of the NM parks folks seem to be a knee-jerk reaction to the usual knee-jerk reaction regarding Christian displays. To mangle another aphorism, two knee-jerks don’t make a right answer.

  2. Evidently, my writing was less than clear. Of course, determination of an Establishment Clause violation does not depend upon the religion at issue. On the other hand, as I just explained to a fb friend, it stretches credulity to suggest that a display of a Buddhist stupa (not, as I recall, an artifact invested with deep religious signficance even to Buddhists) is intended as an endorsement of the Buddhist religion, especially in a majority Christian country with few Buddhists. Context matters. And as Ed Brayton pointed out in the original post, Courts have actually allowed crosses to remain in other parks, ruling–erroneously, in my view–that those Christian symbols did not offend the Establishment clause.

  3. Is it that determination of an Establishment Clause violation doesn’t depend upon the religion at issue, or the relative majority/minority status of that faith? Or the faith of the “person of normal intelligence”? Or, in the case of a national park or monument, a person of normal intellingence from a reasonably intelligent portion of the world that happens to think government tolerance equals government endorsement?

  4. It also stretches credulity to argue government is sponsoring religion when a Valedictorian mentions God or prays in their speech. So is the offended student going to sue a fellow student as an agent of the government? So how do we punish them when they do it anyway?

    To ascribe special protections against all OTHER religions has to begin with an acknowledgement that we are a de facto “Christian” nation, to which you alluded by stating we are a “majority Christian country.” Elsewise how can you argue the obvious logical inconsistencies? I have no problem with that viewpoint or the opposite, but how can you post so much primary and secondary source material supporting a position that we are NOT a Christian nation, and then say we are when it suits a given opinion? Are we Christian in some respects and not in others?

    I agree it’s a silly lawsuit, but for the other reason. All of these lawsuits are Quixotically offensive in and of themselves. Sounds like turnabout is fair play.

    I long suspected this was the position the ACLU took on many of these issues, and unfortunately (obviously) it’s more ideological than “civil liberty” minded. The ACLU should get back to banning father/daughter dances and gender-specific dress codes. It still wastes taxpayer dollars but at least it’s ultimately irrelevant.

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