Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Religious Freedom and National Parks

The establishment clauses of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment read as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.



Do these clauses prohibit a private group from displaying a religious symbol in a national park? That is the issue before the Supreme Court. The case involves

a small plywood box, set back from a gentle curve in a lonesome desert road. It looks like nothing so much as a miniature billboard without a message.

But inside the box is a 6 1/2 -foot white cross, built to honor the war dead of World War I. And because its perch on a prominent outcropping of rock is on federal land, it has been judged to be an unconstitutional display of government favoritism of one religion over another.

This might seem to be a messy issue, since the precise definition of "establishment of religion" or "free exercise thereof" is not obvious.

But here is a simple resolution: get rid of national parks. Government has no compelling interest in this activity, so it should return all the land to private ownership. This allows markets forces to determine whether these lands are best used for private parks, grazing, timber, condominiums, or golf courses.

And then the constitutional issue is moot.

35 comments:

Justin Kraus said...

I vote keep the parks. Avoiding or "solving" messy issues with apparently simple answers is usually impossible. I'm a fan of limited government along libertarian lines. But replacing one hegemony with another i.e. moving from relying on government to relying on "market forces" to solve all our messy problems somehow doesn't seem like much of a step forward to me.

Jon said...

Bravo, Jeffrey. In this same vein, I told my Golden Retriever to go out and get a job today. I think market forces should determine if she is to remain our beloved pet. If she can't afford her own kibble, I don't see what role she can play in our family. I'm not about to spend my hard earned money on a freeloader. I think it's best to let market forces decide these things.....

Since I'm in a generous mood, I'll write your response: Jon, I think it's great that you're a dog lover and have decided to spend your hard earned money on expensive kibble. I also think it's great that the government has no say in the matter and that I am not forced to subsidize your Golden Retriever.

Touché, Jeffrey, but I can't afford my own National Park! Just like I can't afford my own National Public Radio (I haven't read you long enough to know where you stand on NPR, but I'll leave that to my imagination.) Obviously, I'm happy that my tax dollars go to these things. BUT, I'll make a deal with you. You cut the defense budget by half, and I'll give you NPR and the National Parks.

jimbino said...

You will note that our national parks and forests are among the greatest de-facto racist entities in our country.

Burns' new documentary look at the national parks reveals this: at the beginning of each episode, there is a photo of three persons of color and some assertion that the national parks are there to be appreciated by all of us.

There is, however, no face of any color, whether native American, black or Mexican, to be seen in any of Burns' tourist scenes, just groups of rich, white, country-club Americans.

In my own informal survey of the racial makeup of the national parks and forests I have seen fewer than 1% of tourists to be persons of color, other than groups of Japanese.

Truly, an entity that so exploits racial minorities for the sake of country clubs for Whites should be auctioned off. Ted Turner and Disney could probably run a non-racist natural tourist attraction for profit, leaving our minorities to put food on the family table and send kids to better schools with their just share of the proceeds of the sale.

Anonymous said...

I could not help but laugh at Mr. Miron's solution. I appreciate his intellectual consistancy to his belief system but get rid of the nation parks? The problem with ideology (no matter the type i.e. liberal, conservative, libertarian, etc.) is it ultimately leads to crazy solutions because the belief system is thought to be more important than the answers it provides. It would be like coming across a paved road and thinking it is wonderful to walk on and just walking along with not a care in the world (because the road is so great). Ultimately you end up no where. But then you feel compelled to say how nice the place you ended is because by god the paved road led me here.

David Welker said...

Jeffrey Miron:

First, who determines first that the standard for government action should be a "compelling interest." A lot of people think that government should be able to act in ways that are beneficial, but not necessarily compelling. Are you the one that gets to decide that this is the standard? If a majority wants the Federal government to manage national forests because they have the non-elitist view that ordinary people should be able to visit these places and that the wilderness should be preserved, should your view that this interest is not compelling trump that?

Second, even if you were the dictator who got to decide that government action only occurs when it is compelling rather than beneficial, who gets to determine what constitutes when an interest is compelling versus merely beneficial? Apparently, according a study by researchers at Harvard Medical School, 45,000 deaths per year can be linked to lack of health insurance. Is attempting to solve this problem a compelling interest? Why isn't preserving nature a compelling interest? Why isn't ensuring that people, regardless of socioeconomic status, can interact with nature a compelling interest?

If you think about it, your "simple solution" is actually not so simple after all. You are making a whole lot of assumptions that are simply not justified. The standard for government action is not that the interest in question be arbitrarily deemed "compelling." Furthermore, even if that was the standard, the definition of compelling is inherently subjective.

Finally, if your point is that your simple would make the litigation in this case unnecessary, isn't the appropriate answer: who cares. The question of whether the government should manage national parks or not is obviously major, while the resources needed for this matter are comparatively minor.

Anonymous said...

Seems to me our national lands are the only hard assets our county has left. Our government land is now worth well more than our government gold. With all of our national debt at least we have saved ourselves a place to pitch a tent if we like. If we were to sell off our lands where do you think the money would go, back in our pockets? No unfortunately that is the last place it would end up. Our government would just end up funding more ACORN type projects with the money. We saw what they did with the stimulus money. I will take Old Faithful over government waste any day. Love the blog but have to disagree on this post.

michael said...

Miron, I admire the way you think and not only agree with most of what you say but am impressed with the eloquence at which you argue your points making it easy for people to understand sides of issues they might disagree with.

But, though I understand the higher economic value of personal property over anything run by the government, national parks may be one case where I think the positive externalities generated by protecting large tracts of contiguous land are extremely valuable. Consider the Smokey Mountain National Forest. Geographically, it isn't so distinct from the surrounding Appalacia which is sparsely developed. The difference is that with contiguously undeveloped land there are benefits for outdoor enthusiasts and wildlife protection that do not exist in partially developed areas and private ranch-like tourist endeavors. In Europe, they have no such thing which is a shame because there is no where to get away from civilization for long periods of time through much of western Europe. As America grows and crowds over the coming decades, the positive externalities of preserving National Parks will continue to rise in value perhaps even relative to the potential economic value of privatizing that land. It's at least worth considering.

Another externality is the value of commercial industries that rely on having these huge contiguous tracts. Outdoor companies like kayak, canoe, fishing, backpack, camping manufacturers, outfitters, and surrounding towns like Gatlinburg Pigeon Forge and their counterparts around other national parks all benefit more from their clients' oportunities to explore national parks than smaller privatized tracts of land. Again, not saying the economic benefits wouldn't be greater if the parks were dismantled, but it's another thing to consider.

As for the issue of displaying religious symbols in national parks, there is even a much easier solution: consider it litter and remove it just as if it were an empty case of beer along the side of the road. Freedom of religious expression does not need to protect individuals' right to leave objects permanently in public places.

Candice said...

You touched on a hot spot here... Sad to see so many liberatrians doubting the free market.

Anonymous said...

Michael, I don't understand. If national parks provide so much value to the parties you mentioned (individuals, outdoor companies, etc), why wouldn't they pay to preserve the land independent of US government action?

Anonymous said...

Why should the federal government have national parks? If the states want to preserve the land for parks then they can, and it will be up to the people who live in the state to provide the funds.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous,
Just from personal experience, many individuals dont realize the value they receive from national parks until they visit one for the first time. I am personally glad that some of my tax dollars go to preserving the national parks. There is extreme diversity between each park, from Acadia to the Everglades to Glacier to Death Valley, and the appreciation of this diverse beauty is one of the few things that Americans can be united behind in this day and age.

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