MADISON — The Occupy movement has an endearing bit of a Barnum & Bailey flavor about it that brings me back to multiple marches on Washington. Now, it seems, like the circus, Occupy will be heading to winter quarters. Instead of heading to Florida however, Occupiers are eyeing campuses. This is a good move. When the leaves return next spring, amidst the heat of election campaigns students will be primed to make some noise. And why not, there won’t any jobs for them; those have all gone overseas.
Perhaps not to my complete shock, before hunkering down for the snowy season, Occupy has come to my home town in the guise of Occupy Shoreline CT. At first blush it’s hard to know why. Arguably there are vastly overpriced women’s clothing shoppes specializing in size zero dresses in town. Without question we have a movie theater that overcharges for unacceptably mediocre popcorn. But, whatever one percenters there may be living here, none of them I can see run oppressive, home-stealing, retirement-robbing businesses.
The simple and straightforward answer seems to be that OSC wants to change the public discussion from a greed-centric one to a social-justice oriented one. I don’t have a problem with that. However, lacking a clearly discernible evil core my home town’s occupiers chose to set up shop in front of the war memorials, at best a problematic judgment.
The reason is that what is known locally as the “town green” is claimed by the First Congregational Church and may not be town property at all. So, according to local media reports, the head of the church council decided it was appropriate, apparently on political grounds, for him to deny OSC access to church property for a peaceful demonstration.
At this point the story is just one of a local icon being co-opted by an apparently compassionless, self-important twit. That’s sad perhaps, but not a big deal. OSC moved a short distance to property the town does own and got on with the placard-waving. It was touchingly small-town America.
What happened next is interesting. One confused person asked, “If the ‘town green’ is really owned by the Congregational Church, why does the town maintain it”? That’s a very, very good question. So, I trucked on over to town hall to see who is the legal owner of record of the “town green” and could it possibly be true that the town provides free landscaping and upkeep of a church’s property?
In response to a direct question our town leader confirmed that the town does maintain the church’s property without consideration of any kind in writing. Our town leader then asserted that there are no land records for the “town green” because ownership goes back to the 17th century. He went on to joke that the “church stole the green from the Indians.” (Sensitivity training, party of one waiting.)
Our town archivist explained that the green was originally developed at a time when civil and religious authorities were one and the same and now neither entity is willing to quit claim the land. I get it. The stakes were so small, the fight had been bitter and no one was willing to pony up the cash for an exhaustive title search. Neither am I. So, for my purposes, I concede the First Congregational Church’s claim.
Are we home free? Not quite. There is one tiny problem left.
All of the U.S. Constitution’s Framers were Christian (though George Washington is reported to have graced a church service only three times during his entire stay in Philadelphia during the summer of 1789). The nascent United States was indeed a Christian nation. The problem the Framers had was that not all of them belonged to the same sect.
Pennsylvanians were likely to be Quaker. Marylanders were likely to be Catholic. Our fair state was dominantly Congregational. About 70 percent of the 55 Framers were Episcopal and nobody else trusted that those wily Episcopals wouldn’t take over the whole show. So, the Framers mostly punted on religion (the last sentence of Article VI is the only mention of religion in the Constitution proper), leaving it to the states to figure out what to do. Boy, did they. Ahkil Reed Amar, in his book “The Bill of Rights,” reports that our neighbor to the east did not permit Catholics and Jews to become citizens in 1789. Connecticut supported the Congregational church from general fund tax revenues.
The 14th Amendment changed all this, after Justice Hugo Black explained it to us, by incorporating the Bill of Rights against the states. The Establishment Clause says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and that now applies to state and local as well federal government. Sadly, word of the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment has not yet reached my home town.
Here’s the Catch-22. If the FCC owns the property, then my home town’s revered leaders regularly violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by providing taxpayer funded services gratis to a religious group. If the FCC just imagines it owns the “town green” and the town actually owns it, then the church should have no say in how the green is used or collect fees from those who do use it.
The conundrum I am left with is: what would be the social obligation incumbent on the people of my home town if turns out to be true that the Church really did steal the land from Native Americans? How do we make restitution in 2011 for an ongoing 200+ year old wrong? I suggest the first painfully obvious action is to stop making insensitive jokes about potentially shameful behavior.
How apropos that a group named “Occupy” brought all this to light.
Jeremy George is a Connecticut resident who offers a Humorist’s take on some of today’s debates.