On Law
February 16, 1998 / 20 Shevat, 5758

Resting unpeacefully in Boca Raton

By Kevin Hasson

It used to be the only things certain in life were death and taxes. Now, in Boca Raton, Florida, it's only taxes.

It seems the City Council in Boca Raton has decided to begin enforcing a ban on things left by relatives at the graves of their loved ones. The City Council isn't just thinking of litter; it's already illegal to leave behind empty Coke cans and old Snickers wrappers. No, the city fathers are now banning the sorts of devotional items that grieving family members have traditionally left at graveside -- the stones that Jews place on top of graves, or the statutes and crosses that Christians put there. All must go. Why? Because the City Council believes a tidy cemetery is a good cemetery and has decided to give that esthetic vision the force of law. No matter that cemetery officials had previously told those who buried their relatives there that they could decorate plots with religious items. The ban applies to existing graves just as much as new ones.

So, predictably, there is a lawsuit. (Tocqueville was right -- sooner or later everything in America does end up in court.) The aggrieved bereaved argue that, while the government may be able to regulate the size and form of cemetery decorations, it cannot eliminate them completely. They are probably correct. People have the right freely to express their faith on their own property, even if that property is no bigger than a cemetery plot.

But must it always come to this? It is simple, common courtesy (to say nothing of smart politics) to respect people's religious beliefs. It may be a little frustrating to be caught behind an Amish buggy slowly making its way down a Pennsylvania road, but you wouldn't dream of honking your horn at it. That would be bad manners. And only a boor would phone an Orthodox Jew on the Sabbath, or use names sacred to someone else's religion as profanity. It would be discourteous and educated people know better.

A properly educated government should know better, too. Religious expression comes naturally to people, especially at the great moments of life such as birth, marriage and death. There has never been a culture without religious rituals to mark these moments and ours is no exception. Interfering with them should be absolutely unthinkable.

True, we live among a bewildering assortment of faiths, many of which contradict one another. True again, if the government acknowledges one, it must acknowledge all. But so what?

Respectfully accomodating the various religions in our midst may make our cemeteries and our civic life a little less tidy. But it will certainly make them much more humane.

Kevin Hasson is President of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a bi-partisan and ecumenical public interest law firm that protects the free expression of all religious traditions.


© 1998, Kevin Hasson