The Christian right and its legal defenders—each with a name Orwell’s Big Brother seems to have coined, Liberty Counsel, Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty Institute, American Center for Law & Justice—haven’t considered the long-term implications of their legal strategies.
They fight to distribute bibles in public schools. If they win, that means the atheists can distribute their literature too, as FFRF did in Orange County (Fla.) public schools. And we can invite our friends at The Satanic Temple to distribute their literature too. When that happens, most people seem to agree that we should not use public schools as a religious recruiting ground. Funny, that’s what FFRF was saying in the first place.
They fight to keep a nativity scene up on public property. But the only way that might be approved by a court is to open a forum for everyone else’s display. So FFRF displays our Bill of Rights nativity and our friends display their Festivus pole made of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans. Or the government opens 21 spots for holiday displays, like the City of Santa Monica did, and atheists “hijack” 18 of the spots. And the next year all displays are removed—which we were arguing for in the first place.
They fight all the way to the Supreme Court twice—in 1983 and 2014—to be able to give overtly Christian invocations at government meetings. But when a Muslim or Satanist or an atheist give an opening prayer or remarks, they throw a hissy fit and walk out or they shut it down—again, what we argued for in the first place.
This shortsightedness is perhaps most obvious when these groups lobbied Congress to pass the Equal Access Act so that Christian students can form clubs in their public schools. The EAA was a direct response to two court decisions that prohibited Christian clubs from forming in public schools: Bender v. Williamsport Area Sch. Dist., (3rd. Cir. 1984) and Lubbock Civil Liberties Union v. Lubbock Indep. Sch. Dist. (5th Cir. 1982). Congress made it clear that the EAA’s purpose was to countermand these decisions:
“[S]chool authorities across the country are banishing religious clubs from campus or placing such onerous restrictions on them that meetings become almost impossible.”
But the EAA has proved to be a better vehicle for LGBT or atheist groups to form in public schools. When that obvious outcome occurs—it’s right there in the name of the law, “Equal Access”—there is a predictable backlash against the atheist or LGBT students.
It’s fair to say that the religious right paved the way for every student atheist group and LGBT group at public schools around the country. In fact, the wonderful Secular Student Alliance exists partly because the religious right is so myopic.
In their frantic attempt to force Christianity down everyone’s throat, the religious right does not seem to be noticing that their strategy regularly backfires. They are giving us tools, like the Equal Access Act, to better promote our message. Sure, they are able to promote Christianity, but their strategy is also allowing minority groups who would not otherwise be heard a platform for their message. They are giving our messages greater access proportionally. Bibles are the most widely available book in the country, kids can get one anywhere. But where can they get a free copy of The God Delusion or Letter to a Christian Nation? Well, in schools that insist on telling FFRF that bibles will continue to be distributed, such as Orange County, Florida (until they prohibited all religious literature distributions—which FFRF argued for in the first place).
If that is not enough, Christian legal groups should know that every law they lobby for and every court case they win, is likely to hurt them in the future. American Christianity is in demographic tailspin. People are leaving the church in droves. There may well come a time when Christians are a minority and some other religious sect becomes the privileged majority. This is what James Madison warned about 230 years ago: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?”
This is why the best policy is what FFRF fights for, the separation of state and church. The Christian Right would do better to join us.