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McDaniel flounders

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Dustin McDaniel seems to believe that the attorney general is supposed to blunder around talking nonsense. He's misguided. The state's top lawyer should be a level-headed sort.

McDaniel's recent behavior has been decidedly unsteady. Caught up, with other constitutional officers, in a controversy over the nonpayment of taxes on state-owned cars used by the officials, McDaniel was torn between confessing and expressing remorse, on the one hand, or brazening it out and denying wrongdoing on the other. So he did both, confusing all, satisfying none. He further clouded the air by calling down Lt. Gov. Bill Halter for paying the taxes, surely one of the oddest criticisms ever made by one politician of another. Ask "Would you elect a man who pays his taxes?" and you're likely to hear back "Yes!" McDaniel and Halter are potential opponents in a future governor's race. The potentiality appears to be weighing heavily on McDaniel. Although, eventually, he apologized and paid up.

But worse lay ahead. McDaniel ran bull-like into the First Amendment wall between church and state, aligning himself — as much as he can be said to be aligned these erratic days — with political opportunists seeking to weaken the constitutional prohibition against forced religion. He joined in asking a federal appeals court to overrule a district judge who held, properly, that a federal law directing the president to declare an annual National Day of Prayer violates the Constitution.

The judge was Barbara B. Crabb of Wisconsin, ruling in a suit brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation against President Obama. (Who knows even better than McDaniel that the Foundation is right.) The name of the group is entirely apt. Fundamentalists argue that the constitutional guarantee of "freedom of religion" does not include freedom from religion, but of course it would be a sorry sort of freedom if it didn't, rather like saying that the freedom to express one's opinion doesn't include the right to keep one's opinion to oneself.

Whether any American should pray or not pray is none of the government's business. As Judge Crabb says: "Recognizing the importance of prayer to many people does not mean that the government may enact a statute in support of it, any more than the government may encourage citizens to fast during the month of Ramadan, attend a synagogue [the Day of Prayer statute refers specifically to 'churches'], purify themselves in a sweat lodge or practice rune magic. ... The same law that prohibits the government from declaring a National Day of Prayer also prohibits it from declaring a National Day of Blasphemy."

The opinion is 66 pages long and there's wisdom on every one. We commend it to Attorney General McDaniel.


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