By PHILIP GAILEY
ST. PETERSBURG TIMES
The inauguration of a president is a solemn and high occasion, with enough grandeur and panoply to be worthy of a king. At its best, this quadrennial, high-noon moment, which belongs as much to the people as to the president, can be inspiring and uplifting. On the fringes, however, it can be anything but.
President Bush won't be sworn in to a second term until Thursday, but his inauguration already has spawned controversy (critics say it is too extravagant at a time of war) and sideshows (an atheist and religious conservatives are fighting over the event's religious trappings) that in some ways tell us more about the state of the nation than we'll learn from the president's State of the Union address.
The protests being organized around the Bush inauguration range from healthy expressions of dissent to utter silliness. Some of them could have been scripted by Michael Moore, the radical filmmaker of "Fahrenheit 9/11" fame, or infamy.
One Christian conservative group threatened to go to court to overturn a Secret Service ban on, among other things, crosses of a certain size. Leaders of the group demanded in a letter to know why the Secret Service, which is in charge of presidential security, did not prohibit symbols of other religions, like the Star of David or the Crescent Moon with Star.
The Secret Service tried to explain that it was not banning the Christian cross per se, just crosses large enough to deliver a good whack to someone's head.
On another front in the religion wars, Michael Newdow, the California atheist best known for trying to remove "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, filed a lawsuit to bar prayer at Bush's inauguration, a practice that's been going on for more than 200 years without bringing down the wall of separation between church and state. On Friday, a federal judge threw out the lawsuit. Will Newdow now file another lawsuit to prohibit the House and the Senate from opening their daily proceedings with prayer, or to bar members of Congress from holding prayer breakfasts in the U.S. Capitol?
Lack of standing
Newdow doesn't give up easily. More than two years ago, he filed a lawsuit to strike "under God" from the pledge that his young daughter and her classmates recited in school. A federal appeals court ruled in his favor, setting off a fit of national outrage before the U.S. Supreme Court cooled things down by ruling that Newdow lacked standing to file the suit because he did not have legal custody of his daughter. He refiled the lawsuit recently, this time adding plaintiffs who do have legal custody of their children.
Supreme Court justices had better hold onto their robes if Newdow wins again in lower courts.
Newdow is said to be a smart man, so he should know that the Founding Fathers were a lot more comfortable with religious invocations at public events than modern-day liberals and secularists seem to be. He can blame George Washington, our first president, for making God a fixture at inaugurations.
Washington added "so help me God" to the oath of office and then kissed the Bible on which he had placed his hand.
Succeeding presidents followed Washington's example and kissed the Bible until Franklin Pierce broke the tradition. Not only did he not kiss the Bible, but he "affirmed" rather than swore to uphold the Constitution, so help him God. As far as I can tell, the religious right of those days didn't go ballistic or try to impeach him.
I haven't heard anything to suggest that Bush plans to restore the Bible-kissing tradition, but can you imagine the reaction if he did? The cable-television gasbags would feast on it for days.
Meanwhile, anti-Bush protesters, in the best tradition of political dissent, are planning a host of activities to show their disapproval of the president.
Some groups are urging Americans not to buy anything on Inauguration Day ... nothing, not even an order of freedom fries. Those who want to do even more are being told to cancel their cable and phone services.
In New Orleans, protesters are planning to hold a traditional jazz funeral to mourn the death of democracy, and in Washington, others will line the inaugural-parade route and turn their backs as the president's motorcade goes by. About the only thing missing is staging a mock vote recount in Ohio and declaring John Kerry the winner.
X Philip Gailey is editor of editorials for the St. Petersburg Times. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.