A closer look at the Johnson Amendment

WASHINGTON – On Feb. 2, President Donald Trump returned for a brief moment to a recurring issue facing his administration: the Johnson Amendment. At the National Prayer Breakfast, he told the attendees,”Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. That is why I will get rid of, and totally destroy, the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution. I will do that — remember.”

Otherworldly Communications are Protected Speech

Ordinances against fortune telling have a long history, from bans on sorcery and witchcraft in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Europe, embodied today in places like Saudi Arabia, to anti-fraud bans (often based in various ethnic prejudices) in the 19th century, to current laws that claim to be protecting citizens from fraud, but are often pushed by conservative Christian lawmakers. For generations those who practiced fortune-telling as a profession existed on the margins of society, usually depicted as mere swindlers preying on the gullible, until a new ethos started to emerge that classified divination as an art. Part of a spiritual and religious tradition that practitioners felt should be respected, and not subject to laws designed to outlaw those engaging in parlor tricks. In the United States, many anti-fortune-telling laws have been challenged on the grounds of religious freedom, notably Z. Budapest’s very public 1975 battle against a California ordinance. More recently, Wiccans in places like Caspar, Wyoming, and Livingston Parish, Louisiana, succeeded in getting ordinances struck down on this basis.

What the Summum Decision Means

Yesterday the Supreme Court handed down a decision regarding the case of Pleasant Grove City, UT v. Summum, The competing issues at hand were if a government body has the right to unrestricted free speech (including religious speech), and the idea that public land equals a public forum (with the government as caretakers, not gatekeepers). An argument that emerged when the New Age/UFO religion Summum wanted a monument to their Seven Principles placed in the same park as a Ten Commandments display. The unanimous opinion of the court was that in this particular instance the local government’s free speech claims trumped Summum’s free speech claims.
“The case centered on Pleasant Grove City, Utah, which displays a Ten Commandments monument in a public park. A religious group called Summum sought the right to erect its “Seven Aphorisms” in the park as well. When city officials declined, Summum sued, arguing that its free-speech rights had been violated.

The Supremes and Summum

Longtime readers of this blog will remember that I have been harping on the case Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, argued before the Supreme Court yesterday, as being an important test case on the issue of government-sponsored religious displays, and the rights of minority religions regarding full inclusion.”The outcome of this case is going to be a big deal for religious minorities. Remember the battles over Pagan inclusion in government-sponsored religious displays in Green Bay and Ohio? A SCOTUS decision here could all but force local government bodies to enact a fully-open policy concerning religious displays on government-controlled property. In other words, the local city council or mayor couldn’t pick and choose which religious displays are worthy to be placed with a Nativity Scene or Ten Commandments monument. It would be all or nothing.”Since oral arguments in the case yesterday, the issues of governmental “free speech”, the full inclusion of minority faiths in the public square, and the separation of Church and State are getting quite a bit of attention from the mainstream press.

Italy’s Object Lesson

If you were looking for an object lesson on why the separation of church and state is a good idea, look no further than Italy, where a satirist is being prosecuted for insulting Pope Benedict XVI.Sabina Guzzanti: Pope insulter.”Italy’s Ministry of Justice has given prosecutors in Rome permission to proceed under the Lateran Treaty against comedienne and satirist Sabina Guzzanti. She is charged with “offending the honour of the sacred and inviolable person” of Pope Benedict XVI. During a comedy routine Guzzanti criticized the Vatican’s interference in issues such as gay rights, saying: ‘Within twenty years the Pope will be where he ought to be, in Hell, tormented by great big poofter devils…'”All hyperbole aside, Guzzanti is literally being charged under a fascist law. The Lateran Treaty of 1929 was the great solution to the “Roman Question”, a political dispute between the Italian Government and the Papacy. This treaty recognized the sovereignty of the Holy See, and established a concordat giving the Catholic Church certain privileges within Italian society (including the punishment of insults against the Pope).