Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report
The doctrine of states’ rights has been the cause of bitter controversy at several periods in U.S. history. How it has been so is the subject of an article, “States’ Rights,” by Microsoft Corporation, 1993-2003. States’ rights are defined as, in U.S. history, the political doctrine advocating the strict limitation of the prerogatives of the federal government to those powers explicitly assigned to it in the U.S. Constitution and reserving to the several states all other powers not explicitly forbidden them.
Before the Civil War (1861-1865) supporters of the doctrine generally held that the federal government was only a voluntary compact of the states, and that the latter could legally refuse to carry out federal enactments that they regarded as unconstitutional encroachments on their sovereignty. Since 1865 states rights advocates have generally limited themselves to an insistence on a “strict construction” of the terms of the Constitution, whereby the federal government would be kept from such encroachment. Opponents of states’ rights have supported a liberal interpretation of the constitution, asserting that the federal government may legally exercise “implied” powers that, while not explicitly stated, are in accord with the general powers enunciated in the Constitution.
The doctrine of states’ rights was advanced by Thomas Jefferson, later the third president of the United States, against the Alien and Sedition Acts by the federal government. He held these enactments to be unconstitutional infringements of the rights of free speech and the press, and he drafted the Kentucky Resolutions and secured their passage by the Kentucky legislature. These advanced the thesis that the states had the power to determine the constitutionality of a federal law and to declare null and void a law they regarded as unconstitutional. Several actions carried out by Jefferson and his successor, James Madison–the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the Embargo Act (1807) and the 1812 War–aroused the hostility of the New England states; and these in the abortive Hartford Convention (1814) drew a series of resolutions embodying states’ rights doctrines.
One of numerous controversies around the states’ rights issue was caused by the enactment of the federal tariff laws (1828, 1832). Several Southern states, led by John Calhoun, regarded these acts as inimical to their interests, and South Carolina passed an ordinance nullifying the tariff acts. This threat to national unity was allayed when Congress enacted a compromise tariff law and the South Carolina ordinance was repealed. During the next two decades, states’ rights became a paramount issue, inextricably interwoven with the conflict over the issue of slavery. The election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency (1860), an avowed opponent of the extension of slavery, was viewed by the southern slaveholders as a direct threat to their constitutional rights, and they carried the states’ rights doctrine to the extreme of secession. The defeat of the confederacy in the Civil War marked the final collapse of attempts to arrogate to the states the power of the veto or otherwise contravene enactments and policies of the federal government.
The latter part of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th were marked by an almost continues struggle between the Republican and Democratic parties. The Republicans were in power most of this period and therefore favored a strong central government, while the Democrats supported states’ rights to curb the power of the Republicans and to safeguard the traditional Democratic control over the southern states. This situation was reversed, however, after the election to the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, in 1932. In attempting to deal with the prevailing economic depression, he extended federal powers far beyond those explicitly granted the federal government by the Constitution. Many of the policies of the federal government under his sponsorship were denounced by conservative opponents of social legislation, including Republicans and Southern Democrats, as abridgements of states’ rights.
Following World War II, President Harry S. Truman continued expanding the prerogatives of the central government. In the 1948 Democratic convention the Northern majority got an extensive program of civil rights incorporated into the election platform. Southern opponents of these measures declared the program an outright abrogation of states’ rights and withdrew from the party to form a new party, the “States Rights Democrats” or the “Dixiecrats.”
The southern states’ rights movement gained momentum in 1954 after the Supreme Court ordered the state to end racial segregation in public schools. In the election of 1964 most states’ rights leaders stayed in the Democratic party, but some joined the Republican party. Some gave their support to the conservative Republican candidate, Senator Barry M. Goldwater, who expressed strong support for a strict interpretation of states’ rights. In 1968 many states’ rights advocates supported former Alabama governor, George Wallace. The successful Republican candidate, Richard M. Nixon, employed a “southern strategy,” pledging support for an increased role for state governments and the appointment of conservative judges. In the late 1970’s, the states’ rights issue shifted to the West, where a “sagebrush rebellion” against federal and resource policies by development-minded business executives and politicians paved the way for the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency.
In the 1990’s the Supreme Court, with a slim conservative majority, issued a series of rulings that significantly expanded states’ rights. These included the disposal of radioactive waste within a state; ruling unconstitutional a federal law compelling local law enforcement officers to conduct background checks of handgun purchasers; strengthening the principle of sovereign immunity; the idea that states are sovereign governments with immunity from lawsuits brought under federal law; and that states cannot be sued for violations of federal labor, patent and false advertising laws. The Court ruled that state employees cannot sue states for age discrimination under federal law or for money damages for employment discrimination violations of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
But the Court surprised some observers with decisions that sided with federal authority, that states have no authority to impose term limits on one’s service in Congress and that Congress has the power to prohibit states from selling personal information on state drivers’ licenses and motor-vehicle registration records.
The study group also discussed Andrew Jackson’s Second Inaugural Address (1833), which dealt with states’ rights. He said, “…the destruction of our State governments or the annihilation of the local concerns of the people would lead directly to revolution and anarchy, and finally to despotism and military domination. In proportion, therefore, as the general government encroaches on the rights of the States…does it impair its own power and detract from its ability to fulfill the purposes of its creation…But of equal and, indeed, of incalculable importance is the union of these States, and the sacred duty of all to contribute to its preservation by a liberal support of the General Government in the exercise of its just powers. You have been wisely admonished to ‘accustom yourselves to think of the Union as the palladium of your political safety and prosperity, watching for its preservation with Jealous anxiety, discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned, and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of any attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.’ Without union our independence and liberty would never have been achieved; without union they can never be maintained.”
That Damned Woman!
Remembering Madalyn Murray O’Hair
It was a privilege to hear Ellen Johnson, president of the American Atheists for the last ten years. Working tirelessly, she is furthering two goals of the American Atheists: 1] Keeping state and church separate; 2] Protecting the civil rights of atheists and other “freethinking” groups. With visiting freethinkers attending Johnson’s presentation, it was a good time for humanists to mingle and build solidarity for common objectives and issues.
Because Johnson speaks to many different groups and organizations, she has noticed that there are misperceptions and misinformation about the founder of American Atheists, Madalyn Murray O’Hair. In Johnson’s observation, the older population has negative thoughts about O’Hair, many from the media, while younger people know little or nothing about her.
Born in 1919, O’Hair came from a poor union family in Pennsylvania, where her father owned a glass manufacturing company that hired only union workers. Baptized into the Presbyterian Church and raised by church-going parents, O’Hair claimed that she became an atheist after reading the complete Bible in her early teen years.
Earning a law degree in 1952, O’Hair, among other activities, served both in World War II and for the Foreign Service.
Many people are aware that O’Hair in 1963 won in the Supreme Court decision of Murray vs. Curlett where school prayers across the U.S. were ended in the public education system. Describing herself in 1963 as “the most hated woman in America,” it was also later in 1963 that she founded American Atheists, working steadfastly and courageously as its leader for 32 years from 1964 to 1995 when Johnson then took over.
Undeterred by the backlash that she received for Murray vs. Curlett, like death threats and the victim of vandalism long after the 1963 decision, O’Hair continued to work toward the separation of church and state legal battles as the country’s atheist-in-chief.
Too numerous to detail completely, Johnson shared a list of some of O’Hair’s accomplishments.
- O’Hair founded the first American Atheist Library & Archives to collect and preserve Atheist history and publications.
- She founded the “American Atheist Radio Series” in 1980 as the first and only regularly scheduled Atheist broadcasts ever to be made in the United States and broadcast in 123 stations for a dozen years.
- She founded the “American Atheist Forum” in 1980, also the first and only regularly scheduled television broadcast ever to be produced and directed by Atheists. It was on the air for about sixteen years and aired on 130 major cities reaching an estimated 9.3 million homes.
- She founded the first local-level network of Atheist chapters.
- She worked with an early chapter director, prominent businessman Lloyd Thoren, now deceased, so that he could found the first American Atheist Museum in the United States, located in Indiana. Later, O’Hair worked with him to establish the first Dial-An-Atheist service.
- She founded the United World Atheists, which brought together Atheist groups throughout the world.
- She founded the American Atheist Press, which publishes Atheist books. In 1987 it obtained press credentials for covering both the Democratic and the Republican National Conventions.
- She founded the American Atheist magazine, the first open Atheist journal.
- She founded the “American Atheist International Radio Forum” which was heard on 2,000 radio stations worldwide.
- She originated the American Atheists annual convention.
- She was the first person to propose that the United States and all the governments of the world recognize as celebration days the four days of natural events which affect all the world: the Vernal and Autumnal Equinoxes and the Winter and Summer Solstices
- O’Hair and Jon Murray worked with Arnold Via of Virginia, to create the first Atheist cemetery in the United States.
- They worked with a number of leaders in the Gay movement to assist them to set up the first Gay Atheist League of America, and later, a separate national American Gay Atheists organization.
- O’Hair was able to obtain a ruling from the Veterans’ Administration to add to the grave markers in veteran’s cemeteries the symbol of American Atheism.
- The Murray-O’Hairs and American Atheists organized and carried out the first Atheist picketing of any pope in the western hemisphere, in Chicago, Illinois, in 1979.
- O’Hair was arrested and jailed in November 1977 for objecting to prayers at a city council meeting, and Robin Murray-O’Hair was jailed in December 1988, rather than take an oath “so help me God” in order to serve as a Juror.
- Another notable case in 1969, O’Hair vs. Pain, because of the publicity it aroused, caused the United States government to abandon plans to carry religious programming into space in U.S. NASA operations.
- In 1977 the nation-rocking case to remove “In God We Trust” from our currency and coins was filed by American Atheists titled O’Hair vs. Blumenthal. In ruling against the case, U.S. District Judge Jack Roberts agreed with a federal appeals court, which said that the use of the motto on coins “has nothing to do with the establishment of religion.” The United States Supreme Court refused to review the case on appeal.
- In another case, O’Hair vs. Wojtila, O’Hair, Jon and American Atheists challenged the right of Pope John Paul II to give a full Roman Catholic mass on the Washington Mall in the District of Columbia in 1979.
- Murray vs. Goldstein attempted to stop the tax exemptions of church businesses.
- O’Hair vs. Briscoe attempted to remove a crèche from the rotunda of the Texas capitol building.
- O’Hair vs. Hill fought the exclusion of Atheists from public office.
- Collins vs. Chandler attempted to stop prayers at high school commencement exercises.
- Reed vs. Ingham County was fought over the firing of a policeman in Michigan because he was an Atheist.
- O’Hair vs. Nixon (1970) attempted to stop full-scale church services in the White House.
- Murray vs. 27 radio stations and Society of Separationists, Inc. vs. FCC both concerned the demand for equal time for Atheists under the “Fairness Doctrine.”
- O’Hair v. Cooke in 1977 challenged the opening prayer at city council meetings in Austin, Texas.
Such objectives like eliminating prayers in public schools and public government meetings, stopping tax exemptions by church businesses, ensuring that public office is open for everyone no matter their beliefs, and promoting equal job security for everyone regardless of their beliefs should interest us all. Johnson concluded by saying that there is no question that Madalyn O’Hair’s lifetime of work has laid the foundation for successes today in keeping state and church separate and protecting the civil rights of all freethinkers.
My turn of the century computer and I are back. In a way it was nice to have it turned off for a couple of weeks. As useful as computers are, I think we spend too much time sitting in front of these screens. Unless, of course, it is part of your job.
The May General Meeting with American Atheists’ President Ellen Johnson was a success. While there was some anxiety over the possibility of a protest by those opposed to the atheists’ challenge of the Utah Highway Patrol memorial markers, there were no protests and we had a good crowd. Although I must say I was a bit disappointed that there were more atheists in the crowd than humanists. I guess there are some among us who think some of the atheists strident attitude might rub off on us. It was also disappointing that the media reports had little to do with what Ellen spoke of and instead used her visit as yet another opportunity to wedge the roadside memorial issue in where it didn’t belong.
On a related subject, I have decided that I will not favor our chapter becoming affiliated with any other groups. I think it is best we stay as we are, a chapter of the AHA and nothing else. That’s not to say we shouldn’t ally ourselves with other groups when we agree on an issue. But I see no need to be affiliated in a formal way for that purpose.
At the board meeting, we discussed having a ‘video night’ where interested parties get together to visit and watch something of general interest. Bob and Julie Mayhew have agreed to host the event until the crowd grows too large. Suggestions on what to view include “Heart of the Beholder,” the documentary “Root of All Evil?” by Richard Dawkins, “The Corporation,” and “The God Who Wasn’t There”. On a less serious side, there is “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and “Doctor Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Of course, other suggestions are welcome.
We do need to know if there is sufficient interest in this idea to warrant further planning. Please contact me by email, firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone 801-486-4209, if you are interested.
I’m currently reading a very good book and heartily recommend Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby. While many of you may have already read it, as it was published in 2004, it escaped me until recently. It is well worth reading and Susan is very good at, for one thing, setting the record straight about the mindset of the founding fathers.
I would also recommend the podcast pointofinquiry.org. It has excellent interviews with people like Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott, Paul Kurtz, Bill Nye, Sam Harris, Susan Jacoby and more. I think you will enjoy these interviews as much as I have.
That’s all for now. Hope to see you soon.
Center for Naturalism
Member Recommended Websites
This month’s featured site is Center for Naturalism and is recommended by Flo Wineriter. From the website, “Naturalism holds that an individual’s development and behavior are entirely the result of prior and surrounding conditions, both genetic and environmental.