Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheists report on a group of atheists who are suing to remove "so help me God" from the inaugural pledge and the inaugural prayer from the inauguration on the grounds of separation of church and state.
I do not see the merits of this case.
I have argued that freedom of speech is an immunity from violence, not an immunity from criticism. We are free as citizens to criticize the statements that any politician makes - including his or her religious statements. However, the right to freedom of speech implies that we will not resort to violence in order to prevent people from speaking.
This particular lawsuit is an appeal to violence. The decisions of courts are enforced through the use of people with guns. The authority of the court, ultimately, comes from physical intimidation - from its ability to direct people with guns to threaten those who do not obey the court's decisions.
In our state with separation of powers, judges do not have any direct control to order around people with guns. The execution of a court order is handed over to the executive branch, and any direct control the courts have is constrained by the legislature. However, none of this changes the fact that an appeal to courts is an appeal to violence.
An appeal to the courts to prevent certain things from being said is, then, a resort, not to reason or to moral criticism as a way of objecting to the claims of another. It is a resort to violence.
The right to freedom of speech is a prohibition on the use of violence to control what is said.
If the justice who delivers the oath adds the words, "so help me God" at the end of the pledge, we have reason to protest. The duty of the justice is to give the oath as written.
However, once the candidate takes the oath as written, then decides to add on his own the phrase "so help me God", we are free to condemn and criticize his actions (and we have reason to do so). However, we have no right to bring the instruments of violence to bear to prevent him from speaking.
The same is true of the inaugural prayer. We have the right to protest the degree to which we are taxed in order to provide and pay for a national church service. However, if the President wishes to give the microphone to somebody to speak, we may well criticize and condemn him as we would criticize any person for the things said (if they are worthy of criticism). Yet here, too, it is wrong to bring the instruments of violence to bear against their being said.
Sorry, but this lawsuit suggests that quite a few atheists do not have as firm a grasp of the moral standards of freedom of speech and freedom of religion that they claim to have.