April 18, 2001
Religious Tolerance Means "Tolerating Religion"
Just so nobody thinks I'm some sort of anti-religion wacko, I thought I'd weigh in on another religious-type issue, this one more specific to the Pittsburgh area.
When the Allegheny County courthouse was built early in the 20th century, a group of people (can't remember the name right now and I'm too lazy to look it up) donated a plaque with the Ten Commandments on it to be placed on the wall of the courthouse. The plaque has stayed there, more or less unnoticed, for more than half a century.
Then some college student saw it and decided it made him feel discriminated against. The plaque endorses one religious view over another, he says, I'm being left out because I don't share the same views. Bullshit. People like that give us atheists a bad name.
In case anyone hasn't noticed, the idea of separation of church and state has been removing anything vaguely religious from public grounds for years, going back to before either this punk kid or myself were born. In an effort to grope for his 15 minutes of fame, he's managed to offend just about everyone -- Christian, atheist, Jew, whatever -- in the city.
The plaque was placed something like 70 years ago. It's a part of Pitsburgh's history, just like the courthouse building itself is. Would I fight tooth-and-nail to prevent a similar plaque being put up on a public building today? You bet your ass I would; it's just not appropriate to mix religion and law. Yes, I know most of our laws are derived from religious laws, but the more important ones stand on their own -- I don't need god telling me "Thou Shalt Not Kill" to know it's wrong.
But this is different. We have an opportunity here to teach people how easy it is, in the face of a perceived threat to society's morals, to fall into a semi-theocracy. Instead of fighting to remove the plaque, non-Christians and non-Jews should be fighting to highlight it. We should put up one of those blue historical markers, like they have in front of the WQED building in Oakland, to tell people who put the plaque there, why they did it, and why we as a society have realized that we shouldn't do things like that.
But that would require an open discussion, which might in turn lead to understanding and (gasp) acceptance of people who aren't like you in every way. It's worth a shot though.