In their 39-page lawsuit seeking to prohibit religious figures and phrases from Barack Obama’s inauguration, the plaintiffs made a number of interesting complaints but none more colorful than this one: “Interlarding those ceremonies with clergy who espouse sectarian religious dogma does not unite, but rather divides, our citizenry.”
Interlarding? Rick Warren is a big guy but he’s not that big. Of course, attorneys for atheist Michael Newdow and other plaintiffs were using the term metaphorically, arguing that mixing (interlarding: to insert something foreign into) petitions to God and other “explicitly religious dogma” into the secular ceremony violates the Constitution.
Reaction to the suit ranges from annoyance to ridicule. “Newdow’s lawsuit over the inauguration is a lot like the streaker at the Super Bowl: a pale, self-absorbed distraction. And anybody who looks at it carefully can see there’s not much there,” said Scott Walter, executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
I suspect there’d be a lot more sympathy for the suit if Obama had invited a Muslim cleric and a Wiccan priestess to deliver the inaugural invocation and benediction, rather than well-known Christian clergy Rick Warren and Joseph Lowery. Or if Chief Justice John Roberts was planning to ask Obama to close his oath of office with the words “So help me Jesus” instead of “So help me God.”
And I suspect the lawsuit would have generated less condescension if it had been filed by the Freedom Forum or the National Council of Churches, rather than two dozen atheist and humanist individuals and groups led by the infamous Newdow, best known for his lawsuits challenging the interlarding of the Pledge of Allegiance with the phrase “under God.”
The Constitution protects minority rights, not minority sensibilities. Newdow and company filed similar lawsuits before the 2001 and 2005 inaugurations, to no avail. The Supreme Court ruled more than two decades ago that such public “acknowledgments” of God are ceremonial, not theological, and serve “the legitimate secular purposes of solemnizing public occasions, expressing confidence in the future, and encouraging the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society.”
But just because this lawsuit will be dismissed doesn’t mean we should be dismissive of some of the important points made and questions raised by the plaintiffs:
When Chief Justice Roberts asks President-elect Obama to put his right hand on a Bible and swear to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution “so help me God,” is the United States of America declaring that God exists? Does the inclusion of clergy prayers and oaths to God in the inauguration of the president mean that the new government officially endorses theism and rejects atheism?
If not, do the words “so help me God” mean anything at all?
Note: U.S. Dist. Judge Reggie B. Walton has scheduled a hearing on the matter Jan. 15.