The law versus religion

By Phil Plait | December 9, 2006 6:24 pm

Note: NASA will attempt to launch the Shuttle again Saturday night at 20:47 Eastern time. There is only a 30% chance of the weather being good enough for launch, though. NASA successfully launch the Space Shuttle STS-116 into orbit tonight at 8:47 p.m. Eastern time, despite earlier worries that weather would delay it again. This was the first night launch in four years. On a personal note, only one TV station carried the launch in my area, and they cut off the segment 30 seconds after launch. Grrrrr. Now to your regularly scheduled BABlog post.

Take a look at this picture:

That image, from The Desert Sun, a Palm Springs newspaper, shows a 30-foot high aluminum cross loaded with 39 compact fluorescent light bulbs (13 Watts each). It sits on a hill high above Palm Desert (about 14 miles from Palm Springs), is owned by a local church, and can be seen for miles.

And therein lies the problem. The cross violates several local and state ordinances about light pollution. As the article points out, it is six times brighter than allowed for local Palm Desert law, and is too close to Mt. Palomar (home of the giant 200 inch telescope) — any bright lights within 45 miles of the venerable observatory are supposed to be shut off for most of the night. The cross, however, stays lit.

The article quotes some legal folks, who say this is complicated. I’m not so sure. The laws seem pretty clear. And there is more– the owners were supposed to get a permit to make any changes to the cross, but the old wooden one was replaced with the current aluminum one without such a permit. I suspect the bulbs fall under the category of needing a permit as well.

The irony here is that religion is messing up the situation, when it shouldn’t be. Here is one quotation:

Ron Garret, a professor of law and religion at the University of Southern California, points to federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which bans state and local governments from discriminating against religious institutions in the application of zoning laws.

I don’t see it as discrimination to tell a church to turn down or turn off its lights which violate the law. In fact, it’s discrimination if they don’t, against anyone who is not a church who has bright lights.

The article quotes the church rector, who muddies the issue:

“The great genius of the founding of this country was to have a tolerance and open acceptance of all faiths,” said Certain. “It’s not an open acceptance of faith to say you have to hide your symbol.”

The phrase "apropos of nothing" comes to mind. Why?

The First Amendment does say that Congress shall make no law that prohibits the free exercising of religion, certainly. But that has limits. For example, if someone has a religion that says they must eat live kittens, how long do you think that would last? What the Constitution is saying, I think, is that no laws can be made against religion specifically. The church is in violation of general laws, to which it must remain bound. The rector can talk about faith all he likes — another First Amendment freedom — but it has nothing to do with this situation.

The problem isn’t about any show of faith, or religious freedoms, or whether a cross can be displayed (except for the permit violations, which I bet could be solved easily). The real problem is just with the lights. If the church simply turned down the lights there would be no issue.

Instead of tangling up legal and religious issues, maybe the church should go out and buy some dimmer bulbs.

I can’t imagine I’m the only one thinking clearly about this. Sometimes I think I’m taking crazy pills.

Tip o’ the mitre to Fark. And be ye fairly warned, says I: lots of silliness and purposely immature banter at that link.


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