Last weekend when I was in New York, the Chronicle ran a revealing column by new metro writer Lisa Gray. Here’s an excerpt:
Just before 12:30 p.m. almost every Tuesday, Judge James Squier leaves his 312th Court and heads upstairs to the seventh floor of the Harris County Family Law Center.
There, in an associate judge’s chamber, he joins 15 or 20 other courthouse Christians — lawyers, bailiffs and clerks — for Bible study. The group spent about two years combing through the book of Matthew, and another two on Acts. Right now, they’re about a year into John.
“Isn’t that a problem?” I asked Squier recently. He knew I wasn’t talking about the study group’s less-than-blistering pace. I meant the very existence of courthouse Bible study. To me, Bible study sounds like “church,” and the Harris County courthouse sounds like “state.” Aren’t church and state supposed to stay separate?
The family-law judge, who has a reputation for fairness, is a funny, folksy guy, and he sounded almost amused by the question. “Is there a problem with people praying and practicing their faith, reading the Bible, on their lunch hour?” he said. “I don’t think what people do on their lunch hour has to be government-sanctioned.”
The judge knows his law. I checked Squier’s interpretation with Martin Cominsky, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, and with Gerald Treece, a constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law. They both said that Squier is right: It’s perfectly legal to convene a Bible study in the courthouse as long as no one feels forced to attend and it’s not presented as an official government activity. According to the nation’s highest courts, the law doesn’t prevent religious gatherings in public spaces such as courthouses, libraries and schools.
But just because something is legal doesn’t mean that it’s good.
The First Amendment, some might recall, forbids Congress from establishing a religion. The constitutional intent was to head off sectarian religious battles (of the sort that had proven so divisive in the old world) by explicitly denying the national government the power to establish a national religion. The intent of the framers of the Constitution was reflected pretty well in the words they carefully chose. That various government institutions required a Bible oath or entertained an opening prayer or made reference to “God” was not, in the early days of the Republic, thought to raise any Establishment concerns.
Now, to anyone who’s thought very much at all about American constitutionalism, Judge Squier’s lunchtime Bible study doesn’t really raise any substantive constitutional Establishment concerns, as Ms. Gray’s two legal sources confirmed.
Nonetheless, Judge Squier’s lunchtime study habits make Ms. Gray squeamish. And so she concludes her column with a suggestion, with no evidence at all, that attendance at the judge’s Tuesday study group might somehow… improperly… influence… something.
It’s unfortunate that one of Rick Casey’s two replacements has, so early in her tenure, seemingly mastered one of the plagiarist‘s favorite rhetorical devices: the smear.