If there is a trend sweeping America in conservative circles that is troubling, it is the tendency to disregard the Constitution and punish Americans who are inclined to adhere to the nation’s founding document and not biblical law. One would think that an organization like the American Legion would welcome, and defend vigorously, any American’s strict adherence to the Constitution, and yet for the second time in six months an American Legion Chapter has distinguished itself for abandoning the Constitution over its opposition to the 1st Amendment’s Separation of Church and State clause proving once again that religion is one of the greatest threats to America’s democracy.
Last June an American Legion Chapter demanded that a local school district acquiesce to their demands that the group’s chaplain offer a Christian prayer at a Veteran’s Day celebration held in the school’s auditorium. The Superintendent of Wallenpaupack Area Schools (in Pennsylvania), Michael Silsby, received a letter alerting him that if the clergy led a prayer at the district high school’s graduation ceremony one more time, they would be served with a lawsuit. Mr. Silsby understood the unconstitutionality of allowing prayers at a public school ceremony and promised “The District will no longer have religious rituals as part of the commencement ceremony.”
However, when American Legion Post 311 demanded that their chaplain say a prayer at an assembly prior to a Wallenpaupack Area High School’s Veterans Day ceremony, Silsby reacted the way he should to avoid violating the Constitution and running the risk of a legal battle; he alerted the Legionnaire that prayer was not an option. As he rightly should have, Silsby informed the group that the event was a public school ceremony, and as a good American, he told the Post there would be no mixing of church and state at the public school. The Veteran’s group was insulted the superintendent refused to violate the Constitution and threatened Silsby that if the school did not allow the chaplain to pray at the event, they would not show up.
Post 311 executive member Pat Thompson was aghast and said, “We didn’t want to drop out, but this country is falling apart. If the veterans don’t take a stand, who will? Veterans Day is our day and all we wanted was for our chaplain to say a prayer. There are no atheists in foxholes. Saying a prayer does not establish a religion.” Well, there are atheists in foxholes, and saying a prayer at a public school is establishing a religion. Apparently there are some veterans who lack a clear understanding of the 1st Amendment’s separation of church and state and establishment of a religion. Interestingly, there is an epidemic of American Legion Posts who missed civics class in high school as well as the meaning of the Separation Clause in the First Amendment.
In late October, American Legion Post 134 withheld $2,600 it typically donated to the Parks District for a library because it believed sitting during the Pledge of Allegiance is “disrespectful to all veterans that have been willing to sacrifice their lives for this country and it is a great dishonor to all servicemen and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice and died for this country.” The issue was over one of the Parks District commissioners who did not feel comfortable standing for the pledge of allegiance because he believes the words “one nation under God” violated the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. The commissioner said, as he should have and had every right that “I have an obligation as an elected official to uphold the Constitution.” The commissioner did not have issue with any other member standing during the pledge recitation.
To help out the Morton Grove Park District make up the lost $2,600, a blogger, “Friendly Atheist” Hemant Mehta solicited donations from his readers and raised $3,044.06 that he promptly sent to Morton Grove Park District for the library, but he learned the check would not be cashed because the Parks District “did not want to get involved in a political or religious dispute.” Not to be dissuaded, Friendly Atheist Mehta sent the donation directly to the Morton Grove Library, but the library’s trustees rejected his donation because they claimed they could not accept the donation because it was in “bad faith.”
According to one trustee, “People (atheist people) gave money to the park district, not the library. I don’t know if it would be ethical to accept money that wasn’t intended for us to begin with.” However, the real reason the trustee said she turned down the donation was that it came from “a hate group. Would you take money from the Klan?” Apparently, and according to Mehta the atheist, one of the trustees combed through the Friendly Atheist Facebook page and found an offending post on the forum. He accused the trustees of looking for any excuse to reject his readers’ donation and said “them being bothered by a random comment is a weak argument.”
It is not a weak argument, it is no argument. As a subscriber to the Friendly Atheist, the appeal to atheist readers was made on behalf of the Morton Grove Park District library to make up for the veteran’s group that withheld their typical donation based on their anger targeting one District commissioner’s adherence to the U.S. Constitution. Mehta sent the initial check to the District for the express purpose of going to the library. But if the library’s trustees had bothered to ask Mehta, or better yet, read the blog instead of combing through 2,000 Facebook comments posted daily, they would have known that easily verifiable fact.
There are two issues at play in both instances. First, there is a gross misunderstanding of the U.S. Constitution from both of the cited American Legion groups; particularly their comprehension of the 1st Amendment’s separation of church and state. Second, there is a complete and utter hatred of any American not affiliated with religion; likely the Christian religion. The comment by the American Legion executive member that “this country is falling apart, if the veterans don’t take a stand, who will” is an oft-heard complaint of conservative Christians that this country is founded on the Christian religion and that non-believers are destroying the fabric of a country the Founding Fathers saw fit to establish as a secular representative democracy. The contention that atheists are in a crusade to destroy what conservatives contend is a “Christian nation” was repeated recently by charlatan Sarah Palin when she accused “angry atheists” of campaigning to “abort Christ from Christmas.”
America is not a Christian nation, or any religion’s nation, and it is a fact that is driving those who think it is into a frenzy that is easily solved with a refresher course in civics. What is sad about the two American Legion Posts’ actions is that all “service men and women served and sacrificed for this country” and its people who are guaranteed freedom of, and from, religion, and yet there are increasing reports of Americans deliberately disregarding the Constitution, and instead of welcoming every American’s effort to adhere to the nation’s founding document and not the bible, they are seeking ways to punish them even if it means withholding funds for a library and dishonoring a Veteran’s day ceremony.
Audio engineer and instructor for SAE. Writes op/ed commentary supporting Secular Humanist causes, and exposing suppression of women, the poor, and minorities. An advocate for freedom of religion and particularly, freedom of NO religion.
Born in the South, raised in the Mid-West and California for a well-rounded view of America; it doesn’t look good.
Former minister, lifelong musician, Mahayana Zen-Buddhist.