Locals pronounce the name Maryville, a Tennessee city very near The Estate At Louisville and an exurb of Knoxville,* “Muhrr-vull.” The big news: a local citizen was concerned that the city’s annual holiday celebration, which included a reading of several chapters from the Gospel of Luke, violated principles of separation of church and state.
INTERLUDE: Since I tiresomely draw this protest every time I use that phrase, here it is AGAIN: it is true that the Constitution does not use the exact words “separation of church and state.” Neither does it use the word “democracy” or any variant thereof. The absence of that word doesn’t mean the Constitution isn’t about democracy. Of course it is. When you read the document intending to understand it, that’s not a big leap to make because the concept is readily apparent. Same thing for reading the First Amendment and concluding that the Framers wanted to separate church and state. So yes, it’s in there, and no, there aren’t explicit words to that effect. You have to read, interpret, and comprehend and I’m not going to do that work for you here. We now return to your regularly scheduled discussion of the War on the War on Christmas.
So in response, the city officials asked the city attorney, who said, “Nope, if you do a sectarian religious activity at a state-sanctioned event, you’re violating the Constitution.” (This, by the way, is a correct statement of law.) Therefore, the City of Muhrrvull cancelled the Bible reading portion of its annual lighting of the “Holiday” tree. I have to put “Holiday” in quotes because, come on, everyone knows what “holiday” we’re talking about.
Therefore, a brave soul took it unto himself to do the annual reading from the Gospel of Luke as a private citizen, and about 20 local citizens gathered, listened, and applauded when he was done. Perhaps more interesting is the headnote appearing before the version of the story that I did not see when I first read the story yesterday:
Editor’s note: Samuel David Duck is an employee of the E.W. Scripps Co. who works in the News Sentinel building, a fact that was unknown to the freelance writer of the story. Duck also is a candidate for governor running on a “One Nation Under God” platform.
So we’re not exactly dealing with your run-of-the-mill Christian here — we’re dealing with both a newspaper employee and a guy who is running as a minor candidate for Governor. A guy who has an axe to grind and an incentive to make waves. Which makes me take his opening statement to the Knoxnews with a handful of salt: Mr. Duck said it was “terrifying to stand and go against the courts” and read the Bible in a public park following the tree-lighting ceremony.
Well, it shouldn’t have been. Mr. Duck violated no law. He did what he did as a private citizen and, now that I know he’s running for Governor under a “One Nation Under God” platform, possibly as an act of political speech. A private citizen can read the Bible out loud in a park if he wants to. No law prohibits that and in fact the First Amendment protects it. Mr. Duck was perfectly within his rights to do what he did and I, for one, would be quick to argue in his defense if some idiotic governmental official tried to stop him.
The important distinction is that Mr. Duck did not disrupt the non-religious, officially-sponsored parts of the ceremony. The City of Muhrrvull can have holiday tree-lighting ceremonies all it wants to, as long as the Baby Jeebus isn’t mentioned as part of the government-sponsored activities. In fact, I don’t think that the City Mayor would have been out of line to say at the end of the secular ceremonies, “I know there are a lot of Christians here and there will be a private Bible reading over by the Veteran’s Memorial in ten minutes for those who wish to participate.” I draw the line at the Bible reading being part of the official proceedings.
This atheist is quick to point out that Mr. Duck is to be celebrated for his exercise of the free speech and free exercise rights of all American citizens. And this lawyer is also quick to praise the City of Maryville, Tennessee, for respecting the Constitution.
* I can’t write the words “exurb of Knoxville” without cracking a grin. Knoxville isn’t big enough to have suburbs, much less exurbs.