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Americans United v. Pope Francis

In the lead-up to Pope Francis’s visit this week, an activist group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State—formerly known as Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State—sent letters of intimidation to city officials in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Their warning? Americans United would be “watching them” to ensure the cities don’t prepare too well for Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to the United States.

Americans United’s fixation on Pope Francis shouldn’t come as a surprise – after all, this is the same group that questioned John F. Kennedy’s presidential candidacy because of his Catholic faith and accused the Catholic Church of seeking “totalitarian domination” in the 1960s. More recently, Americans United has fought unsuccessfully to replace “In God We Trust” as our national motto. And stop schoolchildren from voluntarily saying the Pledge of Allegiance because it includes the words “under God.” And cancel the annual Christmas stamp. I could go on.

{mosads}This time, though, their tactic is to take aim at a new target: the preparations for Pope Francis’ visit. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said that the Pope’s visit “will be the largest event in the City of Philadelphia in modern history,” drawing an estimated 1 million to 3 million visitors. Officials have compared the visit to the 2008 Phillies World Series parade, which drew 420,000 to 750,000 to downtown Philadelphia, and to the 2008 inauguration of President Barack Obama, which drew 1.8 million to Washington, D.C. But really, there’s no way of knowing for sure how many people will attend: Pope Francis has drawn larger-than-anticipated blockbuster crowds around the world, including 3 million in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and 6 million in Manila, Philippines. It’s no surprise, then, that public officials are pulling out all the stops to make sure that the people who come to see the first Pope from the Americas are treated with dignity and safety.

Enter Americans United. According to them, if Philadelphia, New York and D.C. do too much to prepare for the crowds that come to see Pope Francis, they could be violating the constitution by mingling church and state. And to make sure that doesn’t happen, lawyers from Americans United will be filing public record requests so they can track city officials’ every move. If those aren’t words designed to stop public servants in their tracks, I don’t know what are.

If preparations for millions of spectators weren’t at stake, Americans United’s hypocritical scare tactics would be almost funny. Americans United didn’t send out a press release threatening New York City and Anaheim, Calif., when they hosted the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday celebrations in July. But this kind of double-standard is nothing new: Americans United has threatened state and local governments with lawsuits for hosting seasonal Nativity scenes for decades, but its latest ploy is to sue to force them to host Satanist displays as well. Fortunately, Americans United’s reputation for taking wacky positions is well known in the courts. In cases involving the Pledge of Allegiance, legislative prayer, and whether churches can pick their own ministers, Americans United has lost repeatedly—and unanimously—at the Supreme Court.

All that to say, city officials should ignore these out-of-touch naysayers. Pope Francis is a religious leader to untold millions, but he’s also a head of state and a worldwide celebrity. Cutting back public support for the Pope’s visit just because he’s Catholic is the worst kind of religious bigotry.

The reality is that the government doesn’t violate the constitution when it welcomes world leaders and opens the streets so people can celebrate—even when those celebrations happen to be religious. The Founders knew what it meant to have a state-sponsored church, and hosting Pope Francis for five days doesn’t come close. The government also doesn’t violate the constitution when it puts its best resources into making sure that public events involving millions of spectators run safely and smoothly. For Americans United to claim otherwise is simply wrong. And if Americans United succeeds in intimidating officials it could effect public safety, and that’s not just wrong – it’s dangerous.

Keim is counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a non-profit, public-interest law firm that protects the free expression of all religious traditions. Recent cases include three major Supreme Court victories. Follow her on Twitter at @AdeleKeimBecket. 

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