19 April 2012

Advice from a Flounder

The Cranston prayer banner case has descended from low comedy to outright farce, with a group of Cranston citizens filing a brief to intervene in the case after it had already been decided. For those who aren’t familiar with the case, or maybe don’t remember it (the internet seems to have shortened people’s memories further than ever) let me observe that the city of Cranston, Rhode Island, erected an illegal prayer banner in a local high school half a century ago, and then had the gall to argue that it should be kept up because it had been hanging there (illegally) for a half century. The court ordered them to take it down.

Well now a group of Cranston citizens—the names of these jackasses are Michael Motaranni, Christian Frangos, Olivia Frangos, Carolyn Mesagno, Lori McClain, Jared McMullen and Ronald L’Heureux—are trying to argue that “compelling and dispositive arguments were presented to the Cranston School Committee at the public hearings that were not included in Defendants’ briefs to this Court. Movants believe that these arguments, if considered by this Court, would have resulted in a different ruling.” The judge tersely added, “They are wrong.” Relying on “the Aitken act of 1872 authorizing the use of bibles in all schools in America” Michael Motaranni and his associates argued that virtually every school prayer case has been wrongly decided at least since 1947.

There is an obvious problem with this—several of them, actually. First there is a category error involved here—“authorizing the use of bibles in all schools in America” is not the same thing as authorizing prayer. The bible is a religious text—or rather a collection of religious (and secular) texts held to be sacred by a variety of religious groups. The bible can, in fact, be used in government schools today, as a historic or literary document. Use of the bible in school is not necessarily endorsing one particular religious viewpoint over another.

Prayer, on the other hand, is a religious exercise. There is no such thing as a secular prayer. Any school-sponsored prayer crosses the line that separates spiritual and temporal affairs. Even if “the Aitken act of 1872 authorizing the use of bibles in all schools in America” were in force, it would not be relevant to the issue at hand—state-sponsored prayer.

But where on earth did this crackerjack legal team get the impression that there was an “Aitken act of 1872 authorizing the use of bibles in all schools in America”? What was their source for this erroneous belief? This is what cracks me up about this—this notion goes back to the anonymous internet document sometimes called “History Forgotten” or “Forsaken Roots”. Its author, apparently remembering in a vague and confused way the story of the Aitken Bible, claimed that Congress passed this resolution in 1782:
The Congress of the United States recommends and approves the Holy Bible for use in all schools.
Now when Robert Aitken printed the King James Bible in America for the first time (until the revolution printing it was a Crown monopoly) Congress did in fact pass a resolution approving it and recommending it “to the inhabitants of the United States”. It also authorized him to publicize its recommendation “in the manner he shall think proper.” It did not however authorize “the use of the bible in all schools in America”. That was an error made by the anonymous author of “Forsaken Roots”. He probably had in mind Aitken’s own description of his bible being “for use in schools.” Congress at no time echoed this language, however.

Please note, this is one step lower than relying on the likes of David Barton for ammunition; this is relying on an anonymous internet document, sans documentation, that mistakenly recycled bad Christian Nation arguments into an imaginary act of congress. Pathetic doesn’t begin to describe the case.

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