A soutane is that long, dress-looking robe that is tailored on the top and has a skirt on the bottom. It is distinctive.
So distinctive, in fact, that even from across the park, we could tell what it was.
Turns out it was a picnic for a Catholic parish in the neighborhood. As we passed, we saw several priests, in similar garb, among the crowd. They were playing volleyball and grilling hot dogs, like everyone else.
Often, religious expression is small and personal. Think of a tiny necklace, or a circumcision. Both are discreet. They can be mostly hidden. Other forms of religious identification, however, are by their nature very public and very visible.
The priests in the park wanted to be seen. Their visibility was part of the point of their being in the park in the first place. It was a public display of their religion.
This raises some questions, of course. What constitutes a “public space”? And what are the limits of proper display within these public spaces?
That question got tested in one way by the Supreme Court a few months back. Menachem Zivotofsky is a child who was born in Israel, and who has dual US citizenship. The family wished for his US passport to list his birthplace as “Jerusalem, Israel.”
The passport office refused, citing a policy of the State Department. Because the status of Jerusalem is in dispute between Israelis and Palestinians, it has been policy that passports simply list “Jerusalem” as the birth city, with no country attached.
The family brought suit, arguing in part that a passport is a proper forum in which to express one’s identity - and the child’s identity as an Israeli was important to the family.
No one would dispute that a passport is a public document. It is literally issued by the government, and that is in some respects the textbook definition of “public.” The real question, however, is whether a public document is also public space, in the way Nichols Park is public space.
That became the issue this past week at the Illinois Department of Motor Vehicles. On June 27th, a woman from Chicago named Rachel Hoover tried to renew her drivers license. When they went to take her picture, Ms. Hoover insisted on wearing a colander on her head.
It turns out she claims to be a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. In other words, she is a Pastafarian.
If you have not heard anything about this, take a moment to read Eric Zorn’s excellent column about the issue.
The state of Illinois has threatened to revoke her license if Ms. Hoover does not retake the picture, this time without the strainer. A spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office, David Drucker, was quoted in the Sun-Times saying that he see’s the Pastafarians as “more a mockery of religion than a practice itself.”
The problem for the state, of course, is that the Constitution in many ways forbids the government from making the kind of distinctions that Mr. Drucker cites here.
In plain fact, there are lots of people who come to the Illinois DMV with religious headgear, and they fully expect to have their picture taken with that headgear.
Sikhs wear their turbans. Muslim women wear their hijabs. Orthodox Jews wear their yarmulkes. All of them are granted an exemption from the “no headgear in pictures rule.”
So why not Ms. Hoover? Is it the job of the DMV, or Mr. Drucker and the Secretary of State, to determine whose religious beliefs are legitimate and whose are not?
For many, common sense might say “yes.” But the Constitution seems to say otherwise.
And there is a good reason why. Not too many years ago, a majority of Protestants in America were suspicious of Catholics. To the majority, the rituals and beliefs of Catholics defied common sense. In some areas, Catholics were banned from public office. In other areas, the public display of Catholic items - like crucifixes and statues - were forbidden.
So a priest in a soutane playing catch in a park is not just a religious expression. It is a political expression. It is a public display that invites discussion and comment. In a word, wearing the soutane in a place non-Catholics can see it is an invitation to democracy.
Whether or not we agree that there is a great Spaghetti Monster in the sky, Ms. Hoover is issuing a similar invitation.
If you are interested in reading more about religion and public spaces, I recommend two excellent books. The first is Holy Hullabaloos: A Road Trip to the Battlegrounds of the Church-State Wars, by my friend Jay Wexler. The other is Why the French Don’t Like Head Scarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space, by John R. Bowen.