Back in February, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine addressed a $10,000 a plate fundraiser for a group called Capitol Ministries.
Capitol Ministries seeks to influence government with the teachings of the Bible. Dave Mosher, a correspondent for Business Insider specializing in science, space and technology accused Bridenstine of violating the United States Constitution by praising Capitol Ministries and the work it does.
At issue is the establishment clause of the First Amendment that reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Those legal scholars who hold with original intent maintain that the establishment clause prohibited a government sanctioned church, such as the Church of England.
The courts have expanded the application of the clause to prohibit organized prayers in public schools, the display of religious symbols in public spaces, and in other areas.
However, Mosher and the experts he consulted would seem to be mistaken in the view that the establishment clause limits the free speech of public officials.
The case that would seem to confirm this, ironically, occurred because of a reading from the Book of Genesis by the crew of Apollo 8, which occurred on Christmas Eve, 1968, while orbiting the moon.
The reading was broadcast world-wide along with an image of the Earth rising above the surface of the moon.
The event was so profound in its beauty and inspiration that it served as a hopeful end to the tumultuous year of 1968.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair begged to disagree.
O’Hair, the original militant atheist, had already won notoriety early in the 1960s by litigating a landmark case that caused the Supreme Court to prohibit prayer in public schools.
She filed suit in Federal District Court claiming that the reading from Genesis had violated the establishment clause and thus her right not to be exposed to religion by government employees, which the astronauts were.
A three-judge panel, citing precedence and common sense, dismissed the lawsuit for a failure to state a cause of action.
Attempts to appeal to higher courts, including the United States Supreme Court, were met with defeat.
Nevertheless, when Apollo moonwalker Buzz Aldrin took communion on the lunar surface, NASA obliged him to keep quiet about it out of concern for another kerfuffle kicked up by O’Hair.
Legal precedence aside, Mosher and the experts he consulted are absurd when they claim that Bridenstine’s speech before Capitol Ministries was unconstitutional.
Public officials, including both the appointed and elected kind, often speak before church congregations and religious conventions.
More often than not they tend to praise the work of the groups they are speaking before, out of conviction perhaps or at least out of politeness.
Public officials even attend houses of worship and participate in religious services, both on holy days of their particular faith or on special occasions such as weddings and funerals. Using the logic followed by Mosher, they should be forbidden to do so lest they be seen as favoring the establishment of religion.
President Franklin Roosevelt, no religious conservative he, prayed on a national radio broadcast on June 6, 1944 for the success of the Normandy invasion and for the souls of the men then fighting and dying on the beaches.
No one was bold enough to object, not in the 1940s and not in the middle of World War II.
Presently NASA would like to land people on the lunar surface by 2024. Imagine the day that mission lifts off from Earth and imagine that the president then, perhaps Mr. Trump should he be reelected, offering a prayer for the success of the voyage and the safe return of the astronauts.
Inevitably some militant atheist is going to take umbrage and some group, perhaps the ACLU, will run to the courts.
One can further imagine the reaction of President Trump on Twitter, fast, short, and snarky.
People, either angry atheists or some social libertarians, seem to have a case of OCD where it comes to the establishment clause.
If a public official speaks the name of God or praises the good works of some religious group or a Nativity scene shows up near the county courthouse, they get the shakes and imagine that a theocracy is just around the corner.
The best advice one can give them is to chill.
No one is going to burn people at the stake for not believing in God.
He might catch hell (figuratively speaking) for demanding that everyone else does.