It is rather strange that the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and their local supporters have been quiet about the donation of security cameras to the city of Amsterdam by a Buddhist group, especially after they made such a fuss over a $750 tourism grant by Montgomery County to the Kateri Shrine for the upcoming canonization celebration of Kateri Tekakwitha.
In fact, the Amsterdam resident who contacted Americans United about the $750 grant to the shrine is a friend of the Buddhists in Amsterdam, lives across the street from one of their temples, and has posted a story with photos of the camera donation ceremony at City Hall on his blog, seemingly unaware of the irony of opposing a governmental grant to a religious organization while supporting a religious donation to a governmental organization.
In an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association (the Baptists along with the Quakers being the foremost proponents of the separation of church in state), Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their ‘legislature’ should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
Doesn’t a wall have two sides? Isn’t a wall meant to keep some people in and some people out, or better yet to keep two groups of people on their respective sides? Wouldn’t, then, the separation of church and state, if the Americans United and their local cheerleaders were consistent, mean that a gift from a religious group to a governmental body violates the First Amendment as much as a gift from a governmental body to a religious group?
Aren’t the Americans United worried about a quid pro quo, that the Buddhists will want something in exchange for their gift of 20 security cameras to the city of Amsterdam? And then there is the value of the gift, which I have yet to ascertain, but is much greater than the $750 the county was going to give to the Kateri Shrine.
Maybe Americans United only get upset when an alleged violation of church and state involves Catholics, and don’t care if it involves Buddhists? As L.D. Davidson, who, like myself, is not a Catholic, pointed out in an opinion piece in this section on July 22, the Catholic Church is flawed but the assaults on the church are disproportionate to its flaws.
On the other hand, for the most part, Buddhism gets a pass, even from the media. For example, when the Dalai Lama visited Albany in 2009, the press treated the visit as if it were the second coming of Jesus, even though Keith Ranieri, the conceptual founder of the group sponsoring the event, the World Ethical Foundations, is considered by cult watchers, like the Rick Ross Institute, to be a dangerous cult figure, and appeared on the platform with the Dalai Lama. Moreover, there is never any criticism of the Dalai Lama’s intolerance of other branches of Tibetan Buddhism.
In spite of what I have written above, I have no problem with the Buddhists giving security cameras to the city of Amsterdam, as long as they expect and get nothing in return, and as long as the cameras are placed so they do not violate people’s privacy and civil liberties.
Furthermore, I have expressed my support for the Buddhists in past opinion pieces and continue to support their presence in Amsterdam, although I still have reservations about whether or not they are mainline Buddhists or more of a cult.
I believe also that Montgomery County should have resisted the bullying tactics of Americans United. While the opponents of the $750 grant won the battle when the Kateri Shrine withdrew its application for the grant following all of the controversy, in the long run, they lost the war. By withdrawing their application, the people who run the shrine expressed a grace that Americans United and their local followers seem incapable of expressing.
In the final analysis, by opposing the one gift and not the other, Americans United and their local followers have revealed their inconsistency and also seem to have revealed their true intention, which is not to protect the separation of church and state, but to drive religion, especially the Christian religion, from the public square. It is what the Soviet Union tried to do for seven decades. With less subtlety than Americans United, they even formed the League of the Militant Godless for the express purpose of doing so. Their failure should be an object lesson to Americans United and to us all.
Daniel T. Weaver lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.