A recent front-page story (“County gives up control of Meals on Wheels,” The Daily News, April 12) detailed an unconstitutional government action and concluded with a foolish statement supporting his unconstitutional vote from Galveston County Judge Mark Henry.
The county commissioners, apparently concerned about coming cuts from the Trump administration, have formally agreed with a religious organization — Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston — to provide services for citizens in need, using many thousands of taxpayer dollars.
This is unconstitutional, whether or not Interfaith Ministries is a good group and whether or not the citizens need the services. If religious organizations provide help, the religious believers should be the ones paying for it, with their efforts and their money. Governments at all levels are wisely prohibited by the First Amendment from opposing or promoting religious activities and beliefs.
Judge Henry said, “There’s nothing a government does that can’t be done better by a faith-based nonprofit.” This is not only utter nonsense, as a moment’s reflection would show, but it is not the kind of thing a secular judge, as a judge, should say in support of an unconstitutional decision.
Only with careful neutrality can religious freedom be protected. Quite often calls for better protection for religious liberty seem to be aimed only at defending the liberty of the religious — a mistake.
Without much doubt, the political and cultural establishment in the Galveston area is dominated by people like Judge Henry who at least give lip service to religion (and many of the elite are no doubt deeply religious). Religious folks tend to think that everyone — at least everyone worthwhile — is religious. In Galveston a majority of people belong to houses of worship (20 percent Catholic, 12 percent Baptist, 3 percent Muslim, and various others adding up to 55 percent), but what about the other 45 percent? Some of them may be rascals, but rascals have rights, too. Galveston, by the way, is pretty typical of the area: League City’s numbers are similar.
Freedom of conscience is profoundly important as a basic human right; it’s probably no coincidence that the very first freedom addressed in the First Amendment is religious freedom. Protecting it by limiting government — not by limiting citizens — is the core constitutional prescription. Those who hold dissenting or minority opinions are, it must be remembered, the ones whose rights most need protecting. Majorities, at least in a democratic republic like the United States, tend to be able to look out for themselves pretty well.
Does religious liberty for atheists and other minorities mean that the majority have to give up their own rights? No. Myths to the contrary notwithstanding, the truth, as Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1803, is that “It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own.”
The details matter and there is a huge amount of misinformation about this subject, and about atheism, politics and religion — and more. Judge Henry and any readers who hear claims on these subjects should contemplate and discuss with care.