Louisiana and the First Amendment, redux

April 28, 2014 § 7 Comments

Last week, the Louisiana politician who proposed making the Holy Bible the official book of the Pelican State withdrew his proposal before it went to the state House of Representatives for a vote.  Originally, Thomas Carmody, a Republican from Shreveport, had intended to make a specific copy of the Bible, housed in the state museum the official book, but his colleagues in the House had other ideas, and amended his legislation to make the Bible itself the official state book, not just a specific copy.

Carmody withdrew his legislation, stating that it had become a distraction.

I wrote about this last week, raising questions of the First Amendment’s injunction against an established religion.  In the meantime, following a spirited discussion in the comments, I spent more time digging deeper into the issue of religion and the state in the United States.  I’ve always found this topic interesting, given the First Amendment’s injunction against established religion, and the Founding Fathers’ well-known suspicion of religion itself.  At the same time, of course, the dollar bill in my pocket states, on its back, “IN GOD WE TRUST.” Of course, there is a difference, as the Founding Fathers well knew, between a belief in God and religion.  Jefferson himself was a life-long religious skeptic, though he maintained his faith from cradle to the grave.

dollar 750The New Orleans Time-Picayune quotes a few legal scholars, who seem to be of the opinion that the now-scrapped legislation isn’t worth getting excited about, as it has no real value, it cannot lead to the establishment of religion or the enforcement of religion.  Yet, in withdrawing his legislation, Carmody noted that it could’ve caused “some constitutional problems.”

And this is what I find interesting.  From my own deeper reading of the issue over the past week, as well as what the legal scholars quoted in the Times-Picayune said, it does appear this was really just a tempest in a teapot.  And yet, both Carmody and the New Orleans Democrat Wesley Bishop (holder of a J.D.) appear to be confused about the meaning of the First Amendment in real terms.

Louisiana and the First Amendment

April 17, 2014 § 12 Comments

It seems that the Louisiana House of Representatives is poised to vote on a measure that would designate the Holy Bible as the “official state book” of Louisiana.  Technically, this would have as much weight as the designation of the brown pelican as the official state bird of Louisiana.  But, in practice, this would pack a major wallop.

But is it legal?  The First Amendment of the Constitution states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

And while this refers specifically to the United States Congress, the Constitution of the United States applies to the states and local governments as well (similarly, the constitutions of the various states can impact upon federal law and practices).  In other words, the designation of the Holy Bible as the Official State Book of Louisiana appears to violate the part of the First Amendment that reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” in that it appears to give preferential treatment to Christianity over all other religions.

Louisiana is an overwhelmingly Christian state insofar as religious identification goes.  Somewhere around 90% of the state’s population identifies as Christian.  The next religious identification is no religion, at 8%, while Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews are all less than 1% of Louisiana’s population.  So clearly Louisiana is a Christian state in practice.  But, I’m not entirely sure it can identify as such officially.

Before someone gives me hell for saying that opposition to the Bible being designated the official book of Louisiana tramples religious freedoms, it doesn’t.  That’s not how “the free exercise” of religion works under the Constitution.  The free exercise of religion does not grant the right to trample upon others’ rights, nor does it allow for official religions.  The First Amendment simply states that the state itself cannot impede on the free practice of religion.  However, the courts maintain the right to mediate what religion actually is and how it might be practiced.

The measure has yet to pass the House of Representatives, let alone the state Senate, though I’m sure Governor Bobby Jindal would sign it into law.  IF that were to happen, it will be interesting to see what comes next, whether the ACLU or any other organisation would threaten legal action.  And if it were to get as far as the Supreme Court, even with the court’s recent right turn (the Roberts court has been remarkably centrist), I don’t see how it could uphold such a move by the Louisiana state government.

I find this larger discussion of the Constitution interesting given my new research project, which examines the role of history and memory in far right political circles in the United States.  Central to this project is an understanding of the Constitution, as well as the intentions of the men who wrote it in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 and its subsequent implementation, practice, and interpretation since.

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