In the Hedin case, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist organization, has filed a formal objection with the university contending that the professor’s course is “a one-sided monologue by a government-paid employee whose agenda is to show that science proves the truth of religion – in this case one particular religion, Christianity.” The university has a convened a panel of professors to investigate.
Even if Hedin does include some religious advocacy with his science lectures, if seems fair to ask how that really constitutes a government “establishing” a religion. Nobody is being coerced into believing anything, let alone behaving in a certain way.
In the Evansville case, it is not the city putting up the crosses, but the West Side Christian Church. The city is merely giving the church permission to use public land for the project, which involves the crosses being decorated by children attending a vacation Bible school. Does that really amount to a government favoring a particular religion, or is Evansville trying to accommodate religion in general? That’s something the Constitution does not forbid.
It is tempting to tell all these people to chill out. The First Amendment also gives people the right to “freely exercise” their religious beliefs, and the overly zealous pursuit of our “freedom from religion” prerogative steps all over that right.
But such debates are a useful reminder of how truly free we are here and how wise it is to be very careful about how we mix church and state. We can see the dangers of not doing that every day throughout the volatile and oppressive Middle East, where religion and government are as one. No dictatorship on Earth can be as brutal and unyielding to the popular will as a rigidly orthodox theocracy.