Tag: religion

Art, Religion, and Taxpayer Funding

In Germany enrolled members of a church must pay a tax for the support of the church. I’m sure a lot of American churches would like to have such a revenue source. How’s it working out in Germany? Well, Marketplace radio reports:

Christians – Protestants and Catholics combined – are leaving their churches at a rate of about 300,000 people a year.

No doubt tax avoidance isn’t the only reason for that. But really, if you simply become less interested in religion, why bother to formally renounce your membership? The tax saving is an obvious reason. Marketplace’s John Laurenson talks to one ex-church member:

Stefan, though, no longer pays the church tax that used to gobble up four percent of his salary.

Was it really the money, I ask. Or was it loss of faith? No, he says, it was the money.

Back in April 2000 I attended a lecture at the Smithsonian Institution by Richard Dawkins. Afterward I wrote this to him:

I was struck by your answer to one question. A member of the audience asked why the United States has a stronger movement for religious fundamentalism than other countries even though it has separation of church and state. You replied that you didn’t know; it might be just a coincidence. I was surprised that you didn’t offer what I think is the clear “Darwinian” answer: competition makes individuals and enterprises stronger, while subsidies and protection make them weaker. As I wrote in Libertarianism: A Primer, “businesses coddled behind subsidies and tariffs will be weak and uncompetitive, and so will churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples. Religions that are protected from political interference but are otherwise on their own are likely to be stronger and more vigorous than a church that draws its support from government.”

And indeed scholars of religion often comment that American churches tend to be more vibrant and more robust than European churches, with far more Americans actually in church on Sunday morning than Europeans. Perhaps a guaranteed source of income isn’t all that helpful in the long run.

I was particularly amused by this comment in the Marketplace report, from a businessman who

travels quite a bit in the U.S. and doesn’t much like what he’s seen of the way they fund churches there.

In the States you see churches that sometimes “look a little like they have too much of a consumer orientation,” says Wendland. “Where they play rock music and do all sorts of crazy stuff. I have nothing against rock music but I would (prefer) a church that is doing the right thing for the community and for God but not do stuff to attract a sort of clientele.”

It strikes me that that’s just the argument made on behalf of tax funding for the arts. We have more arts in America than in any country in history. But much of it is labeled “entertainment” and disdained by those who “have nothing against rock music but would prefer arts organizations that are doing the right for the community” rather than having “too much of a consumer orientation.”

Which is why my argument that “Because art is just as spiritual, just as meaningful, just as powerful as religion, it is time to grant art the same independence and respect that religion has. It is time to establish the separation of art and state” seems entirely on point here. 

Creating a Human Freedom Index

Until now, no global index measuring human freedom consistent with a classical liberal approach has existed. Today, as part of the Human Freedom project sponsored by Cato, the Fraser Institute, and the Liberales Institut, we are releasing the first such attempt (.pdf) devised by my colleague Tanja Stumberger and by me. The index is a chapter in Towards a Worldwide Index of Human Freedom (.pdf) (published by Fraser and Liberales).

Using indicators consistent with the concept of negative liberty—the absence of coercive constraint—we have tried to capture the degree to which people are free to enjoy classic liberties in each country: freedom of speech, religion, individual economic choice, and association and assembly. The freedom index is composed of 76 distinct variables including measures of safety and security, freedom of movement, and relationship freedoms such as assembly or legal discrimination against gays.

In this preliminary index New Zealand ranks as the most free country in the world, followed by the Netherlands and then Hong Kong. Australia, Canada, and Ireland follow, with the United States ranking in 7th place.

As we mention in our essay, “The purpose for engaging in this exercise is to more carefully explore what we mean by freedom, and to better understand its relationship to any number of social and economic phenomena. Just as important, this research could improve our appreciation of the way in which various freedoms relate to one another.”

The index thus allows us to look at which freedoms are most under threat in which parts of the world, the relationship between economic freedom and personal freedom at different stages of development, and the relationship between human freedom and democracy, to name a few examples.

We have benefited from the input of numerous scholars around the world who have participated in several seminars as part of this project, many of whom have also contributed chapters to the book published today. Fred McMahon provides a nice survey (.pdf) of the literature on defining freedom that serves as a good introduction to the topic. Our index is being updated and revised along the lines of recommendations we have received since this version was drafted. We also thank Bob Lawson and Josh Hall for providing critiques (published in the book) on the index, the bulk of which we agree with. Further recommendations and criticisms are also most welcome as we continue to refine this work in progress.

How to Make ‘Bless’ and ‘Love’ Fighting Words

I’m no theologian, but when a religious group asks God to bless something, I’m pretty sure that’s a sign they like it. So if some other folks show up and say they love that same thing, we’ve got a clear case of mutual agreement. They’re not going to fight over whether the thing in question needs a blessing or a loving—unless the setting is a public school.

Stall Brook Elementary School, outside Boston, recently told parents that they were editing the song “God Bless the U.S.A.” for an upcoming student assembly, and that their children would instead sing it as “We Love the U.S.A.” A furor ensued, and it wasn’t over the loss of assonance in the refrain. After a great sound and fury the school has relented and will allow, but not require, children to sing the words “God Bless.” Other children and parents, it seems, will be free to sing “We Love” if they prefer. So that will sound nice.

This captures, in small, a great problem with public schooling: compelled conformity. In every community in the country, there is only one public school district. It is the official education organ of the state. As such, it cannot engage in devotional religious activities under the First Amendment. More than that, it cannot possibly reflect the diverse values and preferences of every family. It just can’t. And that’s why we encounter these endless battles over the place of religion in the classroom and in plays, pageants, and ceremonies. It’s why the teaching of history and even of reading and math are fraught with conflicts over content or methodology. And it’s unnecessary. Totally unnecessary.

A truly free society needs a well-educated citizenry. It does not need a government monopoly on k-12 schooling. In fact, it needs to not have a government monopoly on schooling. Fortunately, there is a wonderful alternative to the monopoly status quo—a system that can ensure universal access to a quality education without forcing parents or taxpayers to violate their convictions. That alternative is education tax credit programs that cut taxes on families who pay for their own children’s education and on donations to nonprofits that subsidize tuition for the poor. These programs exist, they work, and they won’t make us fight over blessing or loving the U.S.A.

School Officials Can’t Censor Student Speech, Not Even Religious Speech

Everyone knows that students have First Amendment rights, that the Constitution proverbially doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door.  Yet students in the Plano Independent School District in Texas (against whose speech code Cato previously filed a brief) were prohibited from handing out pencils with messages such as “Jesus is the reason for the season” and “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” or sending holiday cards to retirement homes that said “Merry Christmas.”

The students, through their parents, sued the district on First Amendment grounds, and were successful through a Fifth Circuit panel ruling that “qualified immunity,” a doctrine that prevents government officials from being held personally liable under certain circumstances for violating constitutional rights, did not apply in this case.  The panel’s holding is as important as it is unremarkable: School officials have fair warning that viewpoint-based discrimination against student speech during non-curricular activities violates the First Amendment.  The government certainly cannot do so simply because the speech happens to be religious.

The Fifth Circuit en banc (as a whole) vacated the panel’s decision, however, and decided to rehear the case.  Cato has filed a brief supporting the students and their parents; not only is it settled law that students have the right to free speech in public schools, but school officials should be held liable for violating those rights on the basis of the content of that speech.

Indeed, if the First Amendment means anything, it is that the government cannot suppress speech based solely on its content.  More specifically, when an area of the law is “clearly established,” officials cannot escape liability under the doctrine of qualified immunity.  Qualified immunity simply doesn’t apply to public school officials who suppress speech in a non-curricular setting merely because the school district points to some legal disagreement in a dissent, concurrence, or other non-binding judicial opinion that disagrees with settled doctrine regarding viewpoint-based discrimination against student speech.

The en banc Fifth Circuit will hear the case, Morgan v. Swanson, later this spring.  Thanks to legal associate Michael Wilt for his help with the brief and this post.

Credits for Crucifixes. Or: What’s the Matter with Kagan?

Justice Kagan’s dissent yesterday in the Supreme Court ruling upholding Arizona’s education tax credits seems to me so obviously mistaken on both the facts and the law that I feel I must be missing something. I offer my initial analysis briefly below, and if anyone can tell me if/where I’m going wrong, my e-mail address is just a Google away.

First, Kagan and her fellow dissenters express dismay at the putative novelty of the majority’s distinction between tax credits and government spending. But, more than a decade ago, this very same distinction was acknowledged by the Arizona Supreme Court in Kotternman v. Killian, and that AZ Court ruling itself cites a string of precedents from around the country supporting it. Clearly, the majority’s ruling is far from novel, and Kagan and the dissenters should know that.

Next, Kagan claims that the majority’s ruling would preclude taxpayers from suing the government for operating a program that gives tax credits exclusively to one religious group. She claims that taxpayers of other faiths would lack standing. That seems quite wrong. The pivotal issue is that taxpayers would have to show a specific personal harm resulting from the government’s actions in order to have standing. In the case of Arizona’s tax credits, as the majority acknowledged, there is no harm to taxpayers. Everyone is eligible for the credit and credits can be claimed against donations to any type of scholarship organization, of any faith or no faith. By contrast, under Kagan’s straw man example of a credit for the purchase of crucifixes, non-christian  taxpayers would suffer a specific personal harm: they would be denied the right to use the credit to purchase religious symbols of their own faith (or to buy “Who is John Galt?” posters if they happened not to be religious). This harm would be the direct result of government action–specifically, of the government’s decision to favor Christians over members of other faith groups and secular taxpayers.

A program that discriminates based on religion causes harm to taxpayers by virtue of excluding them from participation. That, in turn, is a clear equal protection violation, not to mention a violation of at least two of the three prongs of the First Amendment Lemon Test, and so such taxpayers would not only have standing to sue they would win the suit.

Again, the AZ tax credit program causes no such harm, because anyone, regardless of faith, can participate, and no one is compelled to support any kind of religious education. Why could Kagan and her co-dissenters not see this?

The GOP and the “Ground Zero” Mosque

Some leaders within the Republican Party seem to have fixed on a useful club with which to bludgeon the president and his fellow Democrats – Cordoba House, aka the “Ground Zero” Mosque. Over the weekend, Republican strategist Ed Rollins explained how the party would use the issue in the coming months:

ROLLINS: Intellectually, the president may be right, but this is an emotional issue, and people who lost kids, brothers, sisters, fathers, what have you, do not want that mosque in New York, and it’s going to be a big, big issue for Democrats across this country.

“Face the Nation” Host Bob SCHIEFFER: So you see it as an issue that’s going to continue?

ROLLINS: Absolutely. No question about it. Every candidate – every candidate who’s in the challenge districts are going to be asked, how do you feel about building the mosque on the Ground Zero sites? 

This strategy, exploiting still-raw emotion and implicitly demonizing Muslims, threatens to trade short-term political gain for medium-term political harm to the party. And it most certainly will translate into long-term harm for the country at large.

Opposing the construction of a mosque near the Ground Zero site plays into al Qaeda’s narrative that the United States is engaged in a war with Islam, that bin Laden and his tiny band of followers represent something more than a pitiful group of murderers and thugs, and that all American Muslims are an incipient Fifth Column that must be either converted to Christianity or driven out of the country, else they will undermine American society from within.

It isn’t a political slam-dunk, either. Though 64 percent of Americans think a mosque near Ground Zero is ”inappropriate”, 60 percent of all respondents in the same survey, including 57 percent of Republicans, believe that the organizers have a right to build in that location, and presumably would not favor a government prohibition on this activity. (h/t  Nate Silver at fivethirtyeight) If anyone were to show evidence that the parties building the center were in any way linked to the 9/11 terrorists, or funded by or funding these same  terrorists, then the issues at stake would change.  But they haven’t done so, and are unlikely to do so. In the meantime, those GOP leaders who oppose the mosque betray a basic inability to discern public attitudes, even as they propel this country on a ruinous course, headlong into a civilizational war which pits all Americans against all Muslims.

A number of public officials and commentators, not all of them Obama supporters, have staked out a position that walks this country back from that precipice. NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s courageous and eloquent statementon this issue should be read by all, not just Republicans. But Bloomberg is unlikely to swing opinion within the GOP base. So too with Fareed Zakaria, who nonetheless deserves enormous credit for distancing himself from any organization that would adopt a public position of thinly veiled bigotry, especially one whose mission is “to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.” Dan Drezner’s take is aimed squarely at right-of-center readers, and sprinkled with a tone of sarcasm; but he is a pointy-headed intellectual, so he’ll have a hard time convincing the most skeptical of the lot.

A more convincing spokesman for sensible voices on the Right is former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson, who wisely opposes a short-sighted and cynical political strategy to exploit anti-Muslim sentiments. Likewise, Mark Halperin recognizes the political salience of an anti-mosque stance, but advises party leaders to steer clearof that position. Josh Barro at National Review Online renders a devastating refutation of all the dubious arguments erected to block the mosque. 

Indeed, George W. Bush himself set the tone in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities, counseling against retaliation against innocent Muslims who had nothing to do with the attacks, and noting that a number of Muslims were killed on 9/11. Other conservative organizations and institutions took notice of Bush’s leadership, and wisely sacked the few voices who preached violence against all Muslims because nineteen of their coreligionists had perpetrated the attacks.

Not quite nine years later, we’ve come full-circle. With Bush enjoying retirement in Texas, who within the GOP will affirm the party’s position that declaring a war on Islam does not advance our nation’s security?

Obama on the Ground Zero Mosque

Politico Arena asks for comments today on President Obama’s Ground Zero Mosque remarks:

My response:

Speaking expressly “as President” last evening [Friday], Mr. Obama has weighed in on the Ground Zero Islamic mosque controversy – and blatantly misstated it.

This controversy has nothing to do with Muslims having “the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country” or with their ”right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan,” as Obama put it. Nor does it have anything to do with the First Amendment. Rather, the issue is simply one of common decency and sensitivity to the feelings of others.

The president is right about one thing: Ground Zero is “hallowed ground.” It is the ground where some 3,000 people of all faiths lost their lives in a brutal attack by radical Muslims acting in the name of their religion, however distorted their beliefs may have been. Those who lost loved ones that day, to say nothing of the rest of us, cannot be indifferent to that fact – as those who support the mosque’s location near Ground Zero seem to be.

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