Cuomo may be doing more harm than good

Jerry Moore

WATERTOWN — Three cheers are long overdue to several newly elected officials in the town of Manlius for bucking a popular custom.

John Deer, Elaine Denton and Heather Waters — all Democrats — opted not to make use of a Bible while being sworn in Dec. 30 as members of the Town Board. Instead, they took their oath of office with their hands placed upon the town’s book of codes.

Manlius is in Onondaga County. Deer, Denton and Waters joined fellow Democrat Katelyn Kriesel in sweeping all four seats up for election Nov. 5. This result now gives Democrats a 5-1 majority on the Town Board.

“Deer said he decided not to use a Bible because he is an atheist and also because he believes in the separation of church and state,” according to a story published Jan. 6 by the Post-Standard in Syracuse. “Waters also said separation of church and state is what motivated her to use a text other than the Bible. She said she first considered using something written by Matilda Joslyn Gage, because that would mean something to her personally. Gage was a women’s suffragist, abolitionist and author who lived in Fayetteville in the 1800s. Waters said she chose the codes book to be neutral, she said. … Denton said she used the codes book because she took an oath to represent the people, and using the codes book ‘seemed more appropriate for me.’”

This was an excellent display by these three board members of standing up for the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. It’s high time more public officials remind theocrats that the basis of our government is secular self-rule, not religious mandate.

Swearing an oath of office has a long history in our country, and this is unfortunate. I don’t mean to suggest that government authorities cannot express their religious sentiments.

But in carrying out their duties, they are representing constituents who may not share their views. When elected officials combine religion with enforcing governmental power, it’s usually too tempting to favor one religion to the exclusion of all other philosophies.

Many public bodies that open their meetings with prayer frequently select Christian representatives much more often than those from other faith traditions. This falsely confirms for many people that their personal religious beliefs are better than other ideologies because they are promoted by their local governments.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a New York case concerning this issue stemming from the practice of the Greece Town Board. Officials there were sued for opening their meetings with prayer, and Christian ministers received most of the invitations.

The court ruled that opening prayers did not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. There are enough loopholes in this provision to legally allow public bodies to begin with prayers, but that doesn’t make it an appropriate exercise.

Allowing public bodies to sanction prayer is more ambiguous than a specific law since no one is compelled to join in or take it seriously. But as it opens the door to complications down the road, legislative prayer is a bad practice that should be avoided.

Elected officials and residents may pray by themselves or in groups prior to municipal meetings to seek divine guidance. And since making the prayer public shouldn’t influence how effective such meetings are, why not keep it to themselves?

Public prayer at government meetings is often not a sincere effort on the part of elected officials to become spiritually enlightened. They can be just as in touch with the divine through private reflection.

The real issue here is that elected officials frequently need to show their constituents how religious they are by conducting public prayers. This turns a spiritual practice into a political one, and earnest people of faith should feel exploited. These politicians are appealing to their religious sentiments to secure votes down the line.

Our Constitution separates church and state for a very good reason. Religious fanaticism becomes tyrannical when it is carried out by government edict.

Thomas More is often praised as a champion of religious freedom. He went to his death refusing to comply with the demands of King Henry VIII. My longtime impression of him as a civil liberties icon, of sorts, was greatly influenced by the 1966 film “A Man for All Seasons,” which I watched as a child in one of my classes in elementary school (this was a Roman Catholic institution, just to clarify).

But More actually represented religious oppression, not religious freedom. He was a “my way or the highway” kind of guy.

While serving as England’s lord chancellor, More oversaw the execution of at least six people because they expressed religious ideas that differed from his own. These dissenters were burned at the stake — an incredibly gruesome manner of death. The movie version of More somehow ignores this act of barbarism.

So it’s a true blessing to see elected officials stand up for their secular principles. The Bible and prayer certainly have their place in our society, just not at a formal public meeting.

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to jmoore@wdt.net.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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(8) comments

Holmes

The progressive dream of secularism entailed the right turning into, essentially, the center-left. Instead, all over Europe, and increasingly America, we see the post-Christian right turning into a nationalist, or even ethno-nationalist, movement. Sorry but you’re all wrong, it’s freedom of religion not freedom from religion...

hermit thrush

regular readers know there are few things funnier than when fake holmes whips out the big words, and sure enough, the first sentence is 100% plagiarized: https://theweek.com/articles/687808/didnt-like-christian-right-youll-really-hate-postchristian-right. really embarrassing stuff.

zeitgeist

Holmes, I'm interested in your opinion on the matter but it lacks a basic understanding of the Constitution's 1st Amendment. I don't know if you lack a basic understanding of it, or whether you understand it but choose to ignore it.

You wrote, "... it's freedom of religion not freedom from religion..." It's not one or the other. It's both.

The Constitution's 1st Amendment provides 3 religious liberties:

1. Freedom FROM religion. It's every American's right to be free from religion imposed by the government or its representatives.

2. Freedom OF religion. It's every American's right to privately practice any religion or no religion provided it does not violate the rights of others. It does not include the right of the government or its representatives to impose religion on us.

3. Freedom to speak about religion. It's every American's right to speak publicly about religion provided it does not violate the rights of others. It does not include the right of the government or its representatives to impose religious speech on us.

Now that I have listed our 3 religious liberties, what is your opinion on the matter? Provide an opinion that does not ignore, disrespect, or misconstrue our 3 religious liberties.

gasgun

When civic leaders pray for divine guidance and then proceed to violate the laws they have sworn to uphold, they cloak their action in the mantle of divine sanction. It’s not just hypocritical, it’s blasphemous!

zeitgeist

Regarding the swearing-in in Manlius, what did the newly elected officials have in common?

They thought about it.

It mattered that it be meaningful. It mattered that each arrange for the elements that would provide him or her meaning. It mattered that the ceremonial words, gestures and materials synchronize with their values, principles and duties. It mattered that they present themselves authentically and engage genuinely.

The secular heroes in Manlius were thinkers.

Nothing stands in the way of public officials acting as secular heroes, except when they stand in their own way. If they are entrenched in appearances, conformity, irrelevant and misplaced traditions, worn customs, popular expectations, vote-getting, etc., they neither will nor need to think.

mjdmsw

Excellent column and important reminder of church and state separation. Now can we address the Pledge of Allegiance, God references on our currency, and replace "God Bless America" with "Take Me Out To The Ballgame".

hermit thrush

good column.

Holmes -- the real one

We have numerous examples of people putting their hands on a Bible. By now, it's pretty darn clear that hand placement on a Bible does not somehow ensure the person will necessarily abide by their oath.

The codes book is shorter and there is a good chance that the newly elected officials in Manlius will actually have to read and refer to that book.

In the end though, it's a person's actions that tell us whether he or she takes their oath seriously.

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