Hasson and Wolf debate religious liberty and the separation of church and state

Published: November 10th, 2008

Category: News

HAsson and Wolf debate

Kevin J. Hasson (left), founder, chairman of the Board, and president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, and UF Law Professor Michael A. Wolf (right) discussed religious liberty last Wednesday.

Instead of separating church and state, Kevin J. Hasson argued that the state should endorse all forms of church.

Hasson spoke Wednesday with Professor Michael Wolf about religious freedom. The event was sponsored by the Federalist Society.

While Hasson said the establishment clause of the First Amendment should be weakened to allow more religion to be public, Wolf argued that it should be strengthened. Cities should not display Christmas trees or menorahs because it waters down religion, Wolf said.

“Is there any reason other than proselytizing for religious groups to want to erect these displays in public places?” Wolf said. “If so, I just don’t see it.”

Hasson replied: “Culture. Culture is the sum total of our manners, our arts, our holiday celebrations, our literature, and it’s inhuman to live without a culture… And it’s just as inhuman to say you can have a culture without a religion in it.”

Hasson is founder, chairman of the Board, and president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a bi-partisan, interfaith public interest law firm that protects the free expression of all religious traditions. The Beckett Fund employs five lawyers, and Hasson said in 15 years of existence, they have won 85 percent of their cases.

Hasson argued that religion should be looked at more like race and ethnicity. An example he gave was St. Patrick’s Day parades, which no one is offended by.

“With all respect, there is a major difference between an Englishman viewing a St. Paddy’s day parade and a 5-year-old child who is given a gold star for memorizing the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer in a public school,” Wolf retorted. “I was that 5-year-old child; you understand where I’m coming from. There is a big difference between watching that parade and being rewarded for saying a prayer to a God that you don’t believe in.”

Hasson outlined his theory from his book, The Right To Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America. In it, he states there are two kinds of people that care about religion in society: pilgrims and park rangers.

Pilgrims don’t want any religious freedom at all; they want everyone to conform to their religion, Hasson said. Park Rangers don’t want any religion in public at all.

The term park ranger comes from a story Hasson told about a tea garden in San Francisco in 1989.

A public parking employee placed a parking barrier into the tea garden, and even though it was an eyesore, the city refused to remove it for four years, Hasson said.

Finally, a new age group claimed the parking barrier was a manifestation of the Hindu God Shiva and began to worship it, Hasson said.

The same bureaucrats who refused to remove the barrier before quickly had it removed to not let religion on public property, Hasson said.

While this may seem like an extreme example, Hasson gave more examples of what is happening around the country.

An Easter egg hunt is now called a “spring egg roll,” Halloween is sometimes called the “fall festival celebration,” and one school district in New Jersey has even gotten rid of Valentine’s Day.

“So now if you’re a 12-year-old boy with a crush on a 12-year-old girl, you have to impress her with something called a ‘special person card,’” Hasson said.

Wolf proposed his own test to see if something would pass First Amendment establishment clause muster.

“Was there an attempt to push the establishment clause envelope at the time the statute was erected, at the time the city was incorporated, at the time the motto was adopted, at the time the Pledge was written?” he said.

However, many lawmakers are trying to further religion today, Wolf said. He mentioned Ave Maria, a town in southwest Florida that was founded on Catholic principles.

“Ave Maria is a private college, a private university, but if the state of Florida wants to give its incorporation blessing to a new city called ‘Ave Maria’ or ‘Allah is great,’ the state gets an ‘F’ on my test,” Wolf said.

Hasson, however, thinks every religion should be entirely public and to some extent, sponsored by the state.

“The trick to getting around in a pluralistic culture is to realize that there is nothing that everyone is going to agree on,” Hasson said. “That’s why it’s pluralistic. The skill involved in that is to be able to sit respectfully and look at something that is pure drive by and smile respectfully when it goes by.”