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NOTIONS: Lamenting the uncivil right to push me and mine

December 12, 2005

Several weeks ago, the Carmel City Council voted 4-3 to ban workplace smoking. Before casting their ayes and nays, some councilors explained why they would vote a particular way.

One councilor said he had smoked for years and finally quit. He said it was a wise decision. He urged other smokers to quit, too.

Then he issued another plea to smokers: He said that even if they wouldn't quit, they should voluntarily stop smoking in places where their secondhand smoke could be inhaled by others. If they'd exercise that courtesy, he said, government wouldn't have to intervene.

He then voted against the ordinance.

A few weeks later, U.S. District Court Judge David Hamilton ordered the speaker of the House of Representatives of the Indiana General Assembly to stop permitting sectarian prayers as part of official House proceedings.

The ruling resulted from a lawsuit filed by the Indiana Civil Liberties Union on behalf of a retired Methodist minister, a lobbyist for a statewide Quaker group and two Roman Catholic citizens.

Their complaint followed a 2005 legislative session in which 29 of 53 prayers were, in the court's view, "explicitly Christian in content," and in which only two of the 53 prayers-one by a rabbi and one by an imam-were offered by non-Christians.

The ruling triggered considerable comment from those supporting and opposing sectarian prayer at government meetings.

Gov.Mitch Daniels called "regrettable" the very need for such rulings. He told The Indianapolis Star, "Not everything that ought to be should be dictated by a court." He said the dispute would better have been resolved "by private and voluntary agreement."

Were it ever heeded, the Carmel councilor's plea for smokers to be civil toward nonsmokers would bring billions in new revenue to smoke-filled establishments that nonsmokers now avoid. It also would reduce disease, death and related costs.

Were it ever heeded, the governor's plea for elected officials to be voluntarily civil toward those with differing spiritual views would bring welcome inclusiveness to public proceedings. It also would moderate a major source of societal conflict.

But what if those in power-by virtue of holding office or lighted cigarettes-won't agree to any way but theirs? What if, by their words and deeds, they insist on demonstrating that "It's all about me" and never about "we?"

I've watched scores of people testify against smoking ordinances this year. I've heard only one, the Carmel councilor, call for voluntary cessation in public places. The rest wave the "Don't-tread-on-myrights" banner.

When Judge Hamilton's sectarian prayer ruling was handed down, the reaction wasn't, "Gee, he could be right." It was "By God, I have my rights."

The Indianapolis Star

reported that Rep. Terry Goodlin, D-Crothersville, wants to give the first prayer of the 2006 legislative session, because, "A judge is not going to tell me what I can or cannot say to express my belief in Christ."

An Indianapolis City-County Councilor, in an email to his colleagues on the prospect of non-sectarian prayers at council meetings, said: "When I am offered the great opportunity to say the prayer in front of the City-County Council, I will speak of our Saviour Jesus Christ and His Father the One True Living God."

And Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma told the Star "he hasn't decided whether he'll follow the order."

(Message from lawmakers to citizens: If you don't agree with the law, it's OK to break it.)

In his book "Civility," Yale University law professor Stephen L. Carter argues that we Americans are becoming increasingly uncivil to one another. "From visitors to volunteers to voters," he writes, "everybody seems to be wondering why Americans treat each other so shabbily."

Carter places much of the blame on selfishness. Instead of controlling our impulses, he says, we defend our right to exercise them. Sometimes, he says, we insist "on an individualism so stultifying that to talk about community or obligation is almost to state an evil."

As a remedy, Carter proposes that we "learn anew the virtue of acting with love toward our neighbors."

And while he says people of faith should lead the way, he also acknowledges their biggest hurdle: "Religious people of all faiths and all political stripes engage in demonizing of those who disagree with them," Carter says, "even though they are nearly all members of traditions that command them not to."

To wit: At the City-County Building two weeks ago, a group of ministers gathered for a prayer vigil. They came not to love their neighbors, but to demonize the homosexuality of some citizens seeking protection from employment and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Of this and other incivility noted here, Carter writes: "Living in a democracy requires hard work that we seem less and less willing to do."



Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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