Many Georgians would have appreciated the reading material, but Mr Buckner did not. He is a former president of American Atheists (AA). His complaint about the “constitutionally improper” literature in his cabin reached the officials who oversee Georgia’s state parks, who ordered them removed. Shortly thereafter Nathan Deal, the governor, overruled them. The Bibles were donated, not bought by the state, he noted, adding that “a Bible in a bedside table drawer” does not constitute “a state establishment of religion”.
Besides, said Mr Deal, “any group is free to donate literature.” AA took him at his word. It has offered books by polemical atheists such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, as well as Madalyn Murray O’Hair, AA’s founder, and Ibn Warraq, a critic of Islam, to be placed in Georgia state-park cottages.
Americans have long fought over what the first amendment’s promise, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”, means in practice. At least two establishment-clause cases are pending before the Supreme Court. Elmbrook School District v Doe asks whether the first amendment bars a state school from holding public functions in a church building for purely secular reasons. (For example if it is cheap, nearby, roomy and equipped with a wheelchair ramp.) The court has yet to accept or reject that case.
It has agreed to hear Town of Greece v Galloway, which concerns the prayers with which a town board in upstate New York opens its meetings, next autumn. Legislative prayer itself is not unconstitutional: the House and Senate both have Christian chaplains, paid from public funds, and in 1983 the court held that such prayers are “part of the fabric of our society”. But a lower court held that because the prayers in Greece were entirely Christian and received with great enthusiasm by town-board members, they “associated the town with the Christian religion”, in violation of the first amendment.
Establishment-clause jurisprudence is as easy to understand as the Book of Revelation. In 1989 the Supreme Court held that a Nativity scene on public property violated the first amendment but a Christmas tree and menorah did not. In 2005 it ruled that framed copies of the Ten Commandments in courthouses and public schools in Kentucky were unconstitutional but that a giant granite monument of the Ten Commandments outside the Texas capitol was just fine. Go figure.
In Georgia, meanwhile, atheists await guidance from the governor on how to get their tracts into cabins. Holidaymakers hoping to curl up with a free copy of “The God Delusion” may be disappointed, however. Mr Deal said he would accept such books but quipped to a reporter from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he “cannot guarantee [their] safety”.
This post originally appeared on Atheism and Agnosticism.