Americans United for Separation of Church and State

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Church State Issues

'A' Mountain's religious shrine needs to be moved

Jul 3, 2013

By: Stephen Uhl - former Roman Catholic priest, psychologist and atheist

Arizona Star

'A' Mountain's religious shrine needs to be moved

The "A" Mountain religious-shrine issue has generated a lot of interest and enthusiastic expressions of widely varying opinions. Personal opinions range from "if you don't like the shrine, live somewhere else" to "it's junk littering our desert, get rid of it."

What's a wise City Council to do as it weighs its options on how to react to the complaint by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF)? In my view, the City Council should follow the law while showing sensitivity to Catholics who consider the shrine holy, to others who see it as integral part of our community's heritage, and to secularists who want public areas free of religious symbolism.

Our Founding Fathers knew of the centuries of bloody religious wars that tore Europe apart, as well as the decades of colonial sectarian strife among settlers on the eastern shore escaping from European dissent. These men recognized that faith-based issues could have similar consequences for our new country. An attempt to defuse this destructive potential was the purpose of the opening sentence in the First Amendment to our federal Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Thomas Jefferson interpreted this phrase to mean a "wall of separation between Church and State"; the Supreme Court interprets it to mean that government shall neither favor religion over irreligion nor one religion over another. Our government must be neutral to religion. Accordingly, multiple court decisions affirm religious shrines such as those on "A" Mountain are unconstitutional because they violate these principles.

These are facts, not opinion. The claims that religious objects on public property are not health or safety hazards, or that they should remain because they've been there for a long time, or that the complainants should "get a life" and find better things to do, will not fly in the courts.

As the Tucson City Council considers the legitimate request of the Freedom From Religion Foundation to remove the "A" Mountain shrine, it should bear in mind that many other municipalities have received similar requests from FFRF. Those cities have found it much less expensive to remove religious displays from public property than to fight this group that has settled constitutional law on its side.

The City Council needs to reflect on the fact that faith is a personal, private and subjective matter. Everyone has the right to believe or not believe whatever one chooses so long as it does not violate the rights of others or our Constitution. This leaves untouched the right of faith-based groups to have their symbols on their own premises or on private property.

When such groups, however, insist on placing their religious displays on government property, land belonging to the entire community, they flaunt their personal belief systems, disrespect the beliefs of others and violate both our Constitution and the golden rule, both of which work for believers and nonbelievers.

Atheists and believers alike should insist that Tucson City Manager Richard Miranda and the City Council do the mutually respectful thing, the constitutional thing, the right thing. Move the Catholic shrine off public property.

Stephen Uhl is a former Roman Catholic priest, a retired psychologist and a friendly atheist. Contact him at