Jonathan Engel, J.D. is the President of the Secular Humanist Society of New York. Here we talk about the law.
*Interview conducted on August 31, 2020.*
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Okay, so, today, we’re back with another wonderful Ask Jon. We’re going to talk about the law. Also, speaking of the law, you ever hear the joke; it’s a line that goes, “If in-laws are outlawed, only outlaws will have in-laws!”
Engel: [Laughing] No, that’s the first time for me.
Jacobsen: Here goes another one. “How many Freemasons does it take to plug in a light bulb? That’s a craft secret.”
Jacobsen: Anyhow. Okay, so, the law. You are a trained Lawyer, a juris doctor. As has been noted before, but for those who are just tuning in, this is important. So what have been some interesting issues, if not concerning issues, arising in the United States, based on the recent Republican National Convention?
Last week, you critiqued the Democratic National Convention based on the fact that faith became a major part of it. When in particular, the Nones are a growing group of the Democratic Party, as opposed to the Republican Party. So what happened at the Republican National Convention? How does this contrast to the Democratic National Convention?
Engel: Well, the Republican National Convention reminded me why I’m a Democrat. Despite some misgivings, just as a quick aside, it was interesting. I was on a call yesterday, in Zoom meeting, with a bunch of people from my organization, the Secular Humanist Society of New York.
And a lot of them were saying, “John, don’t say that. Don’t criticize the Democrats, because if they don’t win, this country is in some huge trouble.” And I said, “Listen, you’re right. I’m just talking to you guys.” And I certainly support the Democratic ticket in a lot of ways. And I agree with them on much of the Democratic ticket. I was just complaining, grousing a bit, that they take secular votes for granted, which they do.
But I understand that the need to win after looking at the Republican coronation or whatever the hell you want to call it. We have a law here in the United States, which is called the Hatch Act. And what the law says, it is illegal, criminal, for a government employer, Federal Government Employee to use their position for political gain.
And the Republican convention being held at the White House was, the whole thing was one big violation of the Hatch Act. And Mark Meadows, Trump’s Chief of Staff was asked about that, “Hey, didn’t that violate the Hatch Act?” His response was ‘nobody cares. Nobody outside the beltway cares,’ is what he said. So, wait a minute.
We’re supposed to have a rule of what here. What is he saying? When he says, ‘Nobody cares,’ what he means is ‘no Republicans care.’ I’ll get a little bit more back in a minute. What happened to the bullet point?
It’s a law. You’re not supposed to say, “Well, on our side, we don’t care about that law in this particular instance. And so, therefore, we’re not going to enforce it.” I mean, that’s astonishing that the President’s Chief of Staff was saying that. It wasn’t any kind of defense that “we didn’t break the law” or anything like that.
It wasn’t any kind of defense or saying, “Well, no, no, technically, that wasn’t the violation of the Hatch Act because it was nothing like that.” It was just ‘who cares?’ The kicks that the rule of law has taken throughout this regime have been very serious. And again, what my thinking is that as a lawyer is that, the rule of law is pretty much everything.
You have to be able to enforce the law in a neutral tribunal. And if you don’t have that, everything else you have is meaningless. I look at countries that in recent years have turned toward authoritarianism. Countries like Hungary and the Philippines. These countries, they don’t get rid of their constitution.
They don’t get rid of their courts. They don’t get rid of their elections. They just rig everything so that they always win. The guy in Belarus who now has got people for weeks in the streets demanding he leave. He said he won 80% of the vote. Because if you control the testing of the votes and it’s not free and open, then it doesn’t matter what happens in the election. You win. And so, what happens if your opponent then goes to court to say, “Hey, wait a second”?
The constitution of Belarus says that they have free and fair elections. And this guy just stole it. Well, if the courts are controlled by the ruler and by the ruling party, then you can have all the niceties in the constitution you want. But if the court says, “Go away, no, we rule against you,” for no particular reason, it doesn’t matter. “Just go away. We rule against you.” Then you don’t have anything. You don’t have anything to stand on. Did you know that Americans are somewhat arrogant? Are you aware of that, Scott?
Jacobsen: [Laughing] No, I never heard of this in my entire time living North of the border. I swear, even during the times of the border as the Orange Line.
Engel: [Laughing] Yes. Well, Americans with, “Oh, of course, we can have it here.” But I can tell you. As a student, I have a juris doctor, a law degree, that’s my graduate degree, but my undergraduate degree was 20th century European history.
And I can tell you a lot of Germans, a lot of German Jews and German liberals. This is a civilized country; this can’t happen here. One of the great societies who has these great thinkers. We’re the land of Beethoven. It can’t happen here. And it did. One of the things that scared me a lot over the weekend, which were a number of things, is that I read a book review in the New York Times, it was a review of a book.
The review was by Jennifer Szalai, “In the Second Volume of ‘Hitler,’ How a Dictator Invited His Own Downfall,” as the book was about Hitler’s downfall 1939 to 1945. Now the review mentions nothing. I read the whole review. There’s nothing in it about contemporary times, no allusions, no references to contemporary times.
And yet I pulled out a whole bunch of quotes from the review that are so resonant about what’s happening with Trump in the United States today. That it’s terrifying. So, between that and Trump saying, ‘Let’s have a civil war here.’
Once his powerful military troops go into places where there is protest and civic unrest to prevent violence, there were so many echoes of Nazi Germany. I’m not saying that it’s going to be a direct parallel.
If I knew that there was going to be a direct parallel, I’d be on my way up to your small town right now. But it is very, very frightening. And again, maybe, this is my legal training, but, to me, it’s all about the rule of law. A real independent judiciary that we’re losing right now.
Especially with William Barr in charge of the Justice Department. You would think, “Yes, Mark Meadows, the Chief of Staff, can say, ‘Who cares? Nobody outside the beltway cares that we violated the Hatch Act.’” But you would think that the Department of Justice would care.
But Bill Barr is in charge of the Department of Justice and he has shown himself to be simply a Trump acolyte. And so, what’s going to happen? Nothing. So, you have this great law on the book, the Hatch Act. It’s a really wonderful law. And it’s broken.
B if nobody will enforce it, if the people who are in charge of the law say, “We’re not going to enforce it, because that is a benefit to our side.” You’re on a slope down to somewhere that you really do not want to go.
Jacobsen: What are other legal mechanisms for the separation of religion and government in the United States being violated?
Engel: Well, basically, it’s the courts. That’s how you know when there’s a violation of the constitution. That’s how you enforce it. Listen, in 1958, that was the year I was born. But my older brother was seven years older than me. He was in school. And the local school district instituted a prayer that said, “Okay, every morning we’re going to start with this prayer.”
And my brother came home one day, told my father about it. And Mike, we had next door neighbors who were upset about it, too. And so, my father and our next-door neighbors, and some other neighbors started a lawsuit. And it went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. And the United States Supreme Court held in 1962 that organized prayers in public schools are a violation of the constitution.
And the name of the case was Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962). So, what do you do? You go to court. That’s how you enforce the constitution. That’s how you enforce the constitutional separation of church and state. It’s through the courts, but you have to trust that the courts are neutral arbiters of the law.
And right now, it’s questionable. I would say that we’re moving into waters where that sort of thing becomes… it’s work. “What is the deal the leader wants?” as opposed to “What does the law say?” And once you get into that area, then you’re marching towards a place that you don’t want to go.
Jacobsen: What groups tend to become early victims of this violation in which some can see reflection in the mandates as interpreted of the largest religious segments of the country?
Engel: Well, that’s an interesting question. Because you never know, and that’s why you want to enforce civil rights, and our bill of rights, and our constitution for everyone. Martin Luther King very famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Because you never know which group, whose ox is going to be gored.
I said that about Michigan. I forget exactly where in Michigan, but there are parts of Michigan that have had the Islamic representation. There are a lot of people who are Muslim. You imagine them saying, “Oh, we want to put prayer back in school.”
We want to get rid of Engel v. Vitale. We’ve been defending Engel v. Vitale since 1962. Prayer in school and there’ll be non-sectarianism; and it’ll be fine. Could imagine what these people would say? If their little Christian child went to school, and the teacher said, “Okay, children, here are your prayer mats. Get down on it, we all going to face East toward Mecca, get down on your knees, bend your head to the floor and recite this non-sectarian prayer.” And Christian parents would go, “No way.”
They always think that when they say, “Oh, religion is okay in the public sphere, and in government, etc.” They always think it’s going to be their religion, but you never know who it’s going to be.
Now, of course, the first people who usually are impacted are secularists. People who are atheists, who have no religion. Which is by the way, one of the fastest growing segments of the American public. Not that you would know it from popular culture or from our leaders, but it is.
Those are the first ones to usually feel the brunt of it. But it’s not always that. I tell you. When my father, neighbors, and my mother brought this lawsuit, there was a lot of anti-Semitic attacks on us. Because I grew up Jewish. A lot of the attacks were anti-Semitic in nature.
And culminated in my next-door neighbor, having a burning cross on his yard. So, I think that it so important for everyone to realize. You think it’s not going to be you. “Oh, well, I don’t mind, I’m Christian. I don’t care at all.”
It doesn’t really bother me to say prayers in school or something like that. But once you established that there is not a separation of church and state, which can’t be breached by anybody. You better watch out because you don’t know what you think. You think you’re always going to be the one in the majority, but it’s not the case.
Very interestingly, I think it was in 1785. James Madison wrote a well-known essay called “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.” And what it was, he was arguing against the tax that was proposed. That would benefit only the Anglican clergy.
And he said, ‘Once you say that, that’s the way you think it’s always going to be: You in the majority, but it’s not. Things change. And my fellow Anglicans, if you think that it’s always going to be us, next thing you know, there’s going to be an influx of anybody, Quakers or whatever.’
I think back in 1785; they probably weren’t thinking Muslims, the Jews, and Hindus. But it could be an influx of people, e.g., Methodists or Unitarians, etc. And all of a sudden, the money’s being used for their clergy. And your tax money is going to that clergy.
I said, “Hey, wait a minute, you can’t do that. But you already established that you could. And that again, brings me back to Martin Luther King, that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If you will allow this to go on, it’s going to hurt you, potentially… eventually. You don’t think it will. But once you establish: that’s okay to be done to somebody else. It will be okay to be done to you.
Jacobsen: Jon. Great note at the end. I’ll talk to you next week.
Engel: Okay. Sounds good, Scott.
Jacobsen: Okay. Take care.
Engel: Take care. Don’t work too hard. If you’re going to listen to me and keep your couch open.
Jacobsen: That’s right. Yeah. All right. Cheers.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
*Associates and resources listing last updated May 31, 2020.*
Canadian Atheist Associates: Godless Mom, Nice Mangoes, Sandwalk, Brainstorm Podcast, Left at the Valley, Life, the Universe & Everything Else, The Reality Check, Bad Science Watch, British Columbia Humanist Association, Dying With Dignity Canada, Canadian Secular Alliance, Centre for Inquiry Canada, Kelowna Atheists, Skeptics, and Humanists Association.
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