At 2:30 AM on the morning of June 13th, an hour before adjourning for the year, the General Assembly approved two outlandish companion bills, H-8143A and S 3035 as amended. In direct contrast to the principles that animated the founding of our state, these bills establish a government commission with the blatantly inappropriate and unconstitutional role of deciding for religious faiths which symbols of theirs are religious and which ones aren’t. As a long-time and staunch supporter of separation of church and state, Governor Chafee should veto this ill- advised legislation.
The bills were prompted by the on-going controversy surrounding a town-maintained Latin cross in front of a Woonsocket fire station. But whatever one’s views of that monument’s constitutional validity, this legislation crosses a line that the First Amendment cannot tolerate. It not only extensively entangles government in religious matters, it epitomizes the worst fears of the founders of the Constitution, who believed that separation of church and state was needed as much, if not more, to protect religion from the state as to protect the state from religion. This bill would allow government officials to declare that even a sacred religious symbol, icon, inscription, or statue has attained a secular value. Thus, government could attack religion in the guise of protecting it, by degrading, minimizing and politicizing the sacred nature of religious symbols in order to “protect” them from those advocating separation of church and state. No government commission should be permitted to decree that a religious symbol no longer has a religious meaning or that it has become predominantly secular.
Further, rather than resolve disputes over government sponsorship of religious symbols, the establishment of a commission like this will only magnify them and politicize religion to an extremely uncomfortable degree. It is ironic that those who claim a desire to protect religion would promote a bill that essentially gives a state commission the power to strip religious symbols of their sectarian meaning.
Passage of this bill is even more ironic when one considers the attacks that Governor Chafee was subjected to from the right last December when, in line with his Republican predecessor, he referred to the State House “holiday tree” instead of calling it a Christmas tree. Yet many of those same people have rallied around a bill that now establishes a government commission whose stated purpose is to declare religious symbols secular! We are hopeful that Governor Chafee will see this legislation for the politically mischievous and constitutionally problematic bill it is and give it a well-deserved veto.