Anyone Have Smelling Salts?

February 25, 2009

Last post, I mentioned one brave legislator’s campaign to strip obsolete but discriminatory language from the Arkansas constitution that bars atheists from holding public office or testifying in court. On Feb. 17, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty—a legal advocacy group that usually comes down in favor of accomodation between church and state—sent a letter to the Arkansas legislature coming out foursquare in favor of amending the state constitution.

How about those smelling salts? Just pinching myself doesn’t seem to do the trick.

“The free expression of religious belief, together with what James Madison called ‘the full and equal rights of conscience,’ should apply to people of all religious traditions—including atheists. Government should no more penalize a person for professing atheism than for professing a belief in Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam,” said the Becket Fund’s letter. Commenting to the media about the letter, Becket Fund litigation director Eric Rassbach said, “It signals to U.S. citizens and to the rest of the world, that the freedom and sanctity of conscience—including the right to believe there is no God at all—is a fundamental right for all people.”

I couldn’t agree more, and I applaud the folks at Becket Fund for coming down on the right side of this issue. But I can’t help wondering what their real agenda is. Is this an effort to curry favor with unbelievers on a “symbolic” issue, in hopes of amassing political capital they hope might deflect atheist protests next time they take the conservative side of some church-state issue?

If so, I suppose I should look on the bright side: This is the first time I’ve ever seen one of the “anti-ACLU” civil liberties groups indicate any interest whatever in what nonreligious people think of it!