If we start bans, when do we stop?

By Barry Smith

Just give them a level playing field.

That's all anyone is looking for when it comes to the debate over free expression of religious ideas in public.

The issue surfaces repeatedly, such as the cross marking Krystal Steadman's memorial and the "God Bless America" signs at Sparks City Hall, and I think I know where most Northern Nevadans stand on the issue.

At the national level, this debate has been going on in New York's Times Square on a very interesting scale, because it doesn't involve government property or right of way.

The United Methodist Church wanted to place a giant billboard at the busiest intersection in America to promote its marketing campaign of "Open hearts, open minds, open doors."

It's a rather ironic message in light of the controversy, which began when the owner of the billboard, Reuters Group PLC, rejected the sign because it was religious.

The company said it had a long-standing policy against allowing religious advertising on the 28-floor, 7,000-square-foot electronic billboard on the side of the Reuters building in New York's Times Square, visited by an estimated 1.5 million people a day.

Reuters also didn't allow political advertising and, like any media company, including this newspaper, reserves the right to reject any advertising it finds inappropriate.

To its credit, Reuters reconsidered the blanket policy. The Methodist Church, the company's CEO wrote, should be allowed "the same access and opportunity to speak in the commercial marketplace as corporate advertisers."

That's a refreshingly open view.

It may have helped the Methodists' cause that another company down the block in Times Square was advertising pornographic movies on a giant billboard.

And that's exactly where social mores in America seem to have arrived. People are up in arms more over religion than pornography.

I say that because it's a perception out there, but it's not true. Not for the vast majority of Americans. Not even close. Still, we're sliding down that slippery slope where the individual liberties of a few trample the individual liberties of the rest of us.

Let me make a couple of things clear.

I don't want government to push any religion down my throat. In fact, I'm not often in the mood for anybody to be proselytizing their beliefs. But I'm the same way about credit-card telemarketers and stupid beer commercials. I reserve my right to hang up, change the channel or, if it's a billboard, look somewhere else.

I'm also not in favor of the government preventing people from aiming those message at me, nor limiting my ability to find out about Methodists, Budweiser or low, low fixed interest rates.

The question isn't really about private business, though. It's about whether religious messages, artifacts, phrases or suggestions are even allowed to be associated with government.

Roy Moore, the judge in Alabama, got in trouble for defying a federal court order. It's pretty clear the Ten Commandments are specific to a religion, and mounting them on a stone tablet in the state Supreme Court rotunda was begging for confrontation. When he lost, he no longer had a leg to stand on.

There has to be a line, and he crossed it. But in too many cases the definition of religion has become far too broad or, more to my point, carries a double standard.

The Appeal ran a letter to the editor the other day about Halloween costumes in school, and it got me to thinking. I don't consider Halloween to be a religious holiday. But if a cross can be considered a symbol of religion, isn't a pitchfork the symbol of the devil?

I could go to ridiculous lengths - and other people have said it better than me - to point out how once you start banning things, it's hard to stop. Gods, myths and beliefs permeate our culture, from the names of the months to the names of the planets. How many of our national holidays can't be traced to some kind of religious origin?

Isn't the Forest Service banning climbing from Cave Rock because the Washoe Tribe considers it sacred?

I'm not advocating we ban Halloween decorations from the lawn of the Governor's Mansion, nor that we force government workers to be on the job on Christmas Day. I'm capable of making up my own mind between individual liberty and government coercion.

On the dollar bill in my pocket, it says "In God We Trust." It also says "Novus ordo seclorum," which means a new order of the ages, taken from a Virgil poem from 1 B.C. (When I looked that up, the explanation also noted "It doesn't mean 'new world order.'")

There is also an all-seeing eye at the top of a pyramid, and the words "Annuit ceptis," which mean "He has favored our undertakings."

Although I've handled many dollar bills in my lifetime (never very many at the same time, unfortunately) I never knew what those phrases meant. Now that I do, it hasn't changed my opinion of the value of a dollar, the state of the federal government or my concept of theology one bit.

Remove all traces of God from public life, well, that would definitely change my opinion of society.

Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal. He may be reached at 881-1221 or by e-mailing editor@nevadaappeal.com.


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