Originally appeared in
Catholic New York on
March 20, 1997
"When God is ignored, man is ignored," Cardinal O'Connor told diners at a gathering at which the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty presented its first Canterbury Medal to the Jersey City, N.J. mayor who defied the American Civil Liberties Union.
Mayor Bret Schundler was sued by the ACLU when he placed a traditional Nativity scene and menorah on the courthouse lawn in observance of Christmas and Hanukkah. When the mayor added a Santa Claus and a snowman, a federal judge ruled the exhibit constitutionally correct. The mayor still plans to appeal the original order against a primarily religious display, and the Becket Fund lawyers will be filing a petition for review with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Cardinal O'Connor and Senior Rabbi Ronald B. Sobel of Temple Emanu-El in Manhattan were co-chairmen of the March 13 dinner at the Essex House in Manhattan. Jack Kemp, the Republican vice presidential candidate last fall and co-director of Empower America, a public policy and advocacy organization, was the keynote speaker.
Kevin J. Hasson, president and general counsel of the Becket Fund, founded it nearly four years ago. At that time, the organization sent a letter to 400 mayors offering to defend their right to allow religious symbols in public places. Mayor Schundler accepted.
Cardinal O'Connor, a member of the advisory board, called the Becket Fund "one of the most important activities" in the United States.
"It is truly ecumenical and interfaith in every sense of those two terms," he said. "It's very much to its credit and it's reflected in the kind of cases that it takes indiscriminately."
Kemp told the audience that families trying to raise their children in a religious tradition are handicapped. He cited a growing tendency to claim that it is unconstitutional for public school students to display the symbols of their faith.
"This is not freedom. It's government-imposed censorship," he said.
"We have no established religion, nor do we want one," he said. "But we must recognize and respect the role of religion and faith in our society. Our liberties are not at risk because people of faith exercise their civic rights and responsibilities."
The real risk to liberty is the current idea that religious-minded individuals do not have a right to influence society, he said.
"People of faith must take up the long and difficult task of mobilizing public opinion on the right side," he said. "We must work through persuasion, not imposition. That's what the Becket Fund is all about."
The Becket Fund is a nonprofit, bipartisan and ecumenical public interest law firm that protects the free expression of all religious traditions. Hasson explained that the fund "stands for the principle that religious liberty is neither a political nor an evangelistic tactic, but a basic human right."
"It defends that principle in the courts of law, the court of public opinion and in academe," he added.
The fund has taken cases for a Plymouth Brethren church in Minnesota, Hasidic Jews in New York, a public school choir in a Mormon city in Utah and a South Bend, Ind., public school student who was stopped from reading the first verses of Genesis as his show-and-tell assignment.
The Becket Fund is named for St. Thomas a Becket, who lived in the 12th century. As Archbishop of Canterbury, he refused to allow the king to interfere in the Church and was subsequently martyred.