Criticizing Religion:

OpinionJournal reported yesterday (quoting the WAFB-TV Web site):

People on the religious right often accuse their counterparts on the secular left of antireligious bigotry, a description the secular left regards as unfair. But here's someone who seems to be guilty as charged: Joe Cook, head of the American Civil Liberties Union in Louisiana, who's fighting with the Tangipahoa Parish school board over religious speech in government schools. Baton Rouge's WAFB-TV quotes him as follows:

"They believe that they answer to a higher power, in my opinion. Which is the kind of thinking that you had with the people who flew the airplanes into the buildings in this country, and the people who did the kind of things in London."

If you don't find this troubling, imagine someone saying the reverse: They don't believe in God, which is the kind of thinking you had with the people who imprisoned dissidents in the gulag and murdered millions through famine.

One can equally imagine someone criticizing a group of Muslim government officials on the grounds that "They believe that they answer to Allah and can therefore ignore court orders restricting Muslim prayer in government institutions, which is the kind of thinking that you had with the people who flew the airplanes into the buildings in this country, and the people who did the kind of things in London." Fairly criticizing religions is perfectly proper: Religious ideologies, like any other ideologies, are eminently sound targets for public debate (though I recognize that sometimes such criticism is unlikely to be terribly persuasive). But, as I'll discuss a bit more below, the quoted argument does not strike me as fair criticism.

I should note that there seems to have been some context missing from the WFAB quote: The ACLU spokesman reports (and I have no reason to doubt him) that he wasn't just condemning the school board, but alleging that they were persistently violating the law and violating a court order. His comment was thus apparently focused not just on the board's belief in a higher power, but on its view that this belief justifies their resistance to a court order. (I include his entire e-mail to me, responding to my query to him, below.)

But as my Muslim official hypothetical suggests, that's still no reason for analogizing the government officials' religious beliefs — even beliefs that lead them to nonviolently resist a court order that they think improper — to beliefs that spawn terrorism. Lots of people have violated lots of laws because of their religious beliefs: We've seen this in the abolitionist movement, the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, the "sanctuary" movement aimed at protecting illegal immigrants from certain countries, and more.

Sometimes an insistence on following what one sees as a higher authority has been noble, and sometimes misguided and pernicious. But when it's nonviolent — even if one thinks it's improper or even unconstitutional — it seems to me quite wrong to tar the religious officials with an analogy to terrorism, as if all religiously motivated violation of the law is alike.

I can't speak with complete confidence as to whether Mr. Cook's quote represents religiously bigoted belief on his part. But it does rest on a guilt by association based on group membership — here membership in the group of religious believers, or at least religious believers who believe religious law sometimes justifies violation of secular law — that is in many ways similar to classic religious bigotry (as I think the atheist and Muslim hypotheticals suggest).

In fairness to Mr. Cook, here's his e-mail:

Mr. Eugene Volokh,

In answer to your inquiry, my quote was taken out of context and sensationalized. As background, the media inquiry was about the system wide training that the Tangipahoa Parish School Board was undertaking on Monday. It was in response to an ACLU sponsored lawsuit and consent judgement signed off by the Board nearly a year ago on August 27, 2004. The Board finally acted belatedly to supposedly do in-service training and inform everyone of the contents of the consent judgement. That agreement prohibits prayers over the intercom and at all school sponsored events, including football games and other athletic activities.

Since the consent agreement, four motions for contempt have been filed against the Board and individuals within the system for violations related to the agreement and a court order in February:

At an Amite High School annual awards banquet a student gave a prayer over the speaker system, while the principal endorsed it and did not intervene or admonish the student. This followed on the heels of a teacher who wrote a prayer for a student to give during an end of year banquet. A loudspeaker prayer at a baseball game and a prayer by a student at a school board meeting preceded that incident.

I made a statement against this backdrop of defiance toward the federal courts exhibited by the Board (Defendants Pre-trial Inserts): Defendants reject the notion that the government can tell them how they can and cannot pray, or otherwise place restrictions on the manner in which they choose to open their meetings.

I made a much longer statement to the reporter in reference to the Board's [lack] of respect for the Constitution and the rule of law related to the current case, Doe v. Tangipahoa Parish School Board (USD ED La., 03-2870), and three others filed against them on church state issues over the past eleven years. Against that backdrop, I said something as I recollect to the effect that the Board has exhibited a disrespect for the Constitution and the rule of law as interpreted by the courts. They don't want to abide by the agreement. They have always crossed the line of separation of church and government and that is dangerous to our freedom and democracy. They believe they answer to a higher power than the rule of law, in my opinion, based on their past statements and actions. That is the kind of thinking and mindset that tragically and unfortunately led people to fly airplanes into buildings.

In retrospect, I regret the use of that hyperbole and analogy because the media and others have drawn erroneous conclusions and diverted attention from the real issues at stake. Now, I would say, "The School Board and their supporters who want the government to endorse prayers and religion in the schools are violating the Constitutional speed limit by going 100 mph in a 20 mph school zone. That kind of mindset endangers our freedom and democracy."

Joe Cook, Executive Director
ACLU of Louisiana