‘No offense’

I am about to weigh in on a topic I would not normally comment on here. I might gnash my teeth a little and yell at the radio couple of times. Maybe drive Hubby nuts with expletives about “other people not being able to read” but generally, my partisan political rantings I keep to myself and a few select friends who know when to ignore me and let things take their natural course of being forgotten in a day or two.

But now that this issue has reared its ugly head in our little town, I need take a stand, if only to muddy the waters a little.

I’m talking about the Veterans Memorial in Leif Hansen Park commissioned by the city from a local artist, and so-called “religious display.” But first let me tell you that I am a firm believer in separation of church and state in its purest form. I don’t want the government to tell me what church to go to, or which god to worship or not. And I certainly don’t expect the government to burn witches at the stake or put “non-believers” in the stocks for all to ridicule. I believe that the founding fathers understood the inherent problems with government-fostered religion, but I also accept that they all believed in a Supreme Power, whatever that may be, as throughout the Declaration of Independence reference is made to “Nature’s God” and “Divine Providence.”

I remember, as do some of you, I’m sure, as a teenager laughing at “banned in Boston” when certain movies or books were reputed to be too risqué for “good people” according to supposed “church authorities.” I recall not being able to buy uncensored copies of “Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” “Fanny Hill” or “Tropic of Cancer” in the U.S. because Congress deemed the “moral code” of the country wouldn’t allow it.

And, truth be told, I have lamented a few times since the repeal of that law in 1960, about the lack of standards in the media, and the loose definition of “redeeming social value” but never have I ever thought that the government should have a hand in determining what is morally acceptable for my consumption. It is my prerogative to not go to the theater, to switch the channel, to not read the book, or simply to hide in the woods if I want to avoid something.

But back to the topic at hand: everyone cites the First Amendment of the Constitution when referring to separation of church and state. They interpret it to mean that “the government,” either federal or civic, can not in any way proffer anything slightly religious on their properties or in their writings, and probably in other ways not yet thought of and the definition of “religious” is becoming broader and broader. In reality, the first amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (and it goes on about the other freedoms of speech, press, assembly and redress).

In my opinion, every time an individual is stopped from exhibiting his or her religious feelings anyplace or berated for doing so, that is prohibition “of free exercise thereof.” While “freedom from religion” may be implied in the amendment, broadening the context does not make it more correct; it just makes it more subject to interpretation. The implication does not extend to denying someone the right of “free exercise thereof.” Why is it offensive to an atheist to see people praying, but not offensive to someone wanting to pray who is denied the right?

When I was in grade school we stood for the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. Some of my classmates were of a religion which did not allow them to honor an icon. They simply did not participate while the rest of us stood for the salute. They were not offended, and we were not offended because they didn’t take part. I don’t remember there ever being a confrontation because of their obligations, or ours. It was a simple recognition of our differences and an acceptance and respect for the others’ beliefs.

Unfortunately, that concept is as unfamiliar to present day society as is walking to school or talking on the phone — still viable but not universally practiced. We have become a “grievance society”: if you believe something I don’t, I have the right to be offended when you practice your belief and apparently also the right to mount an effort to deny you that right. And if you fight back, file a lawsuit to prohibit you from the lawful practice of your belief.

I understand the artist’s confusion that the Kenai City Council would not take a stand for the memorial as it is but instead “tabled indefinitely” the motion to that end. Politics being what they are, they acted expediently, if not auspiciously. Anyone who belongs to an organization where Robert’s Rules are the law knows that “tabled indefinitely” dooms the issue to Purgatory forever. (Please forgive me the religious reference.)

May I suggest that this issue was much ado about nothing. A picture of a cross-shaped grave marker is no more overtly religious than the absence of said picture is atheistic. Let’s get back to respect for our differences instead of storming the walls every time someone dares to voice something contrary to our opinion. Let’s practice live and let live for a while.

Virginia Walters lives in Kenai. Email her vewalters@gci.net.

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