One Nation Under God?
by Elizabeth Moore
"I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise hereof." -- Thomas Jefferson
These are just a few of the words written by Thomas Jefferson on the need for separation of church and state. Our founding fathers recognized that man is himself "fallible and uninspired," and should not have the power to assume "dominion over the faith of others."
In other words, by keeping a clearly defined line between church and state, religious liberty is protected from interference from the government. If this is one of the ideas our country was founded on, why is religion suddenly so ubiquitous in the public sector?
The Aftermath of September 11th
"You would think we learned from Sept. 11th that the merger of government and religion is a very dangerous thing." - Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State
"...throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way -- all of them who have tried to secularize America -- I point the finger in their face and say, 'You helped this happen.'" - Jerry Falwell, The 700 Club
Patriotism is often expressed in religious terms, which has civil libertarians and church-state separationists on edge. The wake of September 11th has promoted a lack of understanding of the line between separation of church and state. To conservative Christians, this allows for a new sense of freedom.
Following the rise of patriotism since September 11th, Christian conservatives have been accused of seizing the opportunity to further break down the proverbial wall between church and state. Many people turned to spiritual guidance--which was readily encouraged by the president, as well as other government officials.
In a Dec. 10, 2001 Chicago Tribune article, "Crusading for a Christian Nation," Dahleen Glanton reports that church attendance increased 25 percent immediately after the terrorist attacks. (Less than a month later, attendance had returned to normal levels of about 48 percent.)
"In times of difficulty, Americans have always gone back to their faith," said Miriam Moore, legal policy analyst for the Family Research Council, an organization that promotes religion in the public sector. "People's willingness to talk about religion has changed. They no longer come across as tactless or less educated when they talk about their faith."
At the same time conservatives are enjoying their freedom, church-state separationists are feeling trapped, faced with an unprecedented set of challenges.
"It's been difficult to continue to define the line between church and state since September 11th," said Rachel Joseph, legislative representative of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. "Patriotism is so often expressed in religious terms that to raise an objection to religious practice in a public place seems anti-American to many."
For example, according to the Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs, an organization that promotes free exercise of religion by discouraging government interference, a public school bus driver in Maryland was removed from her route after refusing to stop her practice of leading the students in morning prayers. She told The Washington Times that she began doing it because of President Bush's call to pray for the nation after the September 11th attacks. She is suing the school district for alleged violation of her constitutional rights.
People are willing to overlook minor breaches in the separation of church and state in the name of patriotism. If the president tells us to pray, why not do it everywhere, not just in church?
"In God We Trust," and "Hang Ten": Promoting Christianity in schools and courtrooms
"This is not a nation established on the principles of Buddha or Hinduism. Our faith is not Islam. What we follow is not the Koran but the Bible. This is a Christian nation." - Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore
"The God of Islam is not the same God. He's not the son of God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It's a different God, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion." - Rev. Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham)
In 1980, the historic case of Stone vs. Graham struck down a Kentucky law requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in public classrooms. The court officially recognized the Commandments as "undeniably a sacred text."
Since this case, advocates of the public display of the Ten Commandments have found ways around the law. By surrounding the Ten Commandments with secular texts, the advocates can claim that the Commandments are there purely for secular educational purposes, acknowledging them as a basis for modern law.
It is obvious why secular advocates would have a problem with this, but conservatives are having a problem with it as well.
"Putting [the Ten Commandments] up next to secular documents is insulting to all parties involved," said K. Hollyn Holman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Public Affairs. "It is offensive to religious people, because it insinuates that the Ten Commandments are a secular document, like the Bill of Rights. It disrespects their religious significance in Christianity and Judaism."
Many consider these measures a violation of the First Amendment, ignoring Americans who practice religions other than Christianity. Others are in favor of these measures, holding rallies in support of officials who are attempting to erect Ten Commandments plaques and monuments in city halls, county buildings and courthouses.
Dahleen Glanton reported in the Chicago Tribune (Dec. 10, 2001) that Hamilton County commissioners in Chattanooga, TN voted to display the Ten Commandments in the county building and in two courthouses. In Ringgold, GA, a town of 2,000 near the Tennessee border, officials recently placed the commandments, the Lord's Prayer and an empty frame with the engraving "This is for those of other beliefs" in City Hall.
Last year, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case concerning the display of the Ten Commandments in Elkhart, Indiana. Gov. Frank O'Bannon agreed to erect a 6-foot-tall pillar engraved with the commandments on the statehouse lawn in Indianapolis. Several lower courts ordered the monument be removed.
The Ten Commandments Defense Act (H. R. 3895) was recently introduced by Rep. Robert Alderholt of Alabama. This act is an attempt to give states the option of displaying the Decalogue in schools and other public buildings.
The Alabama Senate recently voted to display the motto "In God We Trust" in all public classrooms. "It reinforces the fact that we have a nation that trusts in God and that our nation was founded by godly people," said Rep. Bill Armistead of Alabama.
Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State referred to the bill as "a backdoor scheme to promote religion in public schools. Politicians know they can't require prayer or Bible reading, so they turn to these kinds of maneuvers to get around court rulings against state-sponsored worship."
Judge Roy Moore, Alabama Supreme Court chief justice, placed a four-foot-tall monument of the Decalogue in the rotunda of the state judicial building in Montgomery. According to Miriam Moore, the Chief Justice is entitled to do so.
"It is the tradition that the Chief Justice always chooses the decor," said Moore. "[Americans] have unparalleled freedom in this country. People should have the ability to govern themselves by the Ten Commandments, which have truly been significant to us historically. There is nothing wrong with paying tribute to them."
Advocates of school vouchers argue that the reason behind them is to give children of low-income families better education options. The program was enacted by the Ohio legislature in 1995 to allow low-income families to use a voucher of up to $2,250 to attend private religious and non-religious schools in and around Cleveland.
In the U.S. Supreme Court case Zelman vs. Simmons-Harris (expected to be decided by June), the constitutionality of this program is brought into question. Opponents point out that the vouchers are paid for by tax dollars, which could be used to fund religious schools.
"The question is not whether students in Cleveland or elsewhere are entitled to quality education--clearly they are," said Holman. "The question is whether the state can subsidize religious indoctrination in parochial schools."
Advocates of the school voucher program do not see it as a threat to the separation of church and state since the parents make the decision as to whether to send their children to religious schools. "Not only is it incorrect to say that these programs violate church and state, it's also cruel to those children in Cleveland," said Family Research Council's Miriam Moore.
"The Ohio school voucher program is not about funding religion," Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, the legal arm of the Christian Coalition, wrote in a November statement. "The Ohio plan does not advance or endorse religion--it merely provides parents with a sensible method of selecting a school. To exclude religious schools in a voucher program is a discriminatory move that sends a message of hostility toward religion."
This issue has been argued before, and vouchers have repeatedly been struck down and labeled unconstitutional on church-state grounds. The fact is, no federal court has ever upheld a voucher plan.
"It is ironic that the pitch for vouchers has reached the nation's highest court just as Americans have been made forcefully aware by the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks that the religious indoctrination of school children can breed poisonous hatred," writes Carol Richards in her March 10, 2002 Newsday column,"States Shouldn't Subsidize Religious Schools."
No one has argued that children should have to stay in troubled schools. "Why should we not look at all of the options open to parents?" asked Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who cited community and magnet schools as examples of non-religious options. Others argue that using vouchers will detract from school reform. According to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, vouchers help only a handful of students, whereas efforts to reform schools would benefit the ninety percent of American children who attend public schools. Advocates for the program point out that the vouchers can be used at any nonpublic school, not just religious ones. Arguments against vouchers point out that 99 percent of students currently using vouchers have opted for religious schools.
Charitable Choice/ Faith-Based Initiative
In a nutshell, Charitable Choice is part of the Community Solutions Act of 2001, a bill introduced in the House of Representatives designed to provide incentives for charitable contributions. Under Charitable Choice, religious organizations are allowed to receive tax incentives for providing social services such as drug counseling, adoption services and AIDS outreach--just like any other nonprofit organization.
Before Charitable Choice, any religious organization was allowed to apply for these funds, provided that they establish a separate, secular entity for public funds. This system is known as the Religious Affiliate Model. A religious organization may set up a separate, secular entity to provide social services. This entity can get tax incentives, provided they did not discriminate in their employment and did not evangelize while providing publicly funded services. This way the religious organizations may get nonprofit status for the services they provide without violating the separation of church and state.
Advocates of Charitable Choice argue that religious organizations are being unfairly discriminated against and that they should be able to get tax incentives without setting up a separate entity. Those who oppose Charitable Choice do so not only because it forces taxpayers to fund religious organizations, but also because it allows government intrusion into religion.
"Government funding inevitably saps the vitality of our religious institutions by making them dependent upon government dollars and stifling them with government regulations," said Holman.
Under Charitable Choice, taxpayers would lose the right to decide whether to support religious ministries. As well, these publicly funded organizations would have the right to discriminate against employees based on religion. Under Charitable Choice, religious groups would be exempt from anti-discrimination standards and could refuse to hire employees based on religious beliefs.
Politicians, Lawmakers and Tolerance
According to the Feb. 24, 2002 Chicago Tribune article, "Officials' religious remarks raise fears of intolerance," by Naftali Bendavid, many Americans are becoming uncomfortable with the continued theological tone of many government officials.
For example, President Bush has long proclaimed his faith, often remarking on his decision to become "born again" at age 40 and how much his faith has helped him. In a speech following the September 11th attacks, Bush said, "The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty have always been at war. And we know that God is not neutral between them." Bush and other officials have since referred to terrorists as "evil" and have repeatedly quoted the Bible to reiterate their points.
Attorney General John Ashcroft comes from a strict fundamentalist religious background and is often accused of bringing his faith into his work. He reportedly has had himself "anointed" with oil upon taking some political offices and has instituted daily prayer meetings at the Justice Department that have made some uncomfortable.
On the state level, the recent antics of Judge Roy Moore, chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court has made national headlines. The Associated Press reports that in a recent custody case, Moore declared a mother unfit because of her homosexual lifestyle and cited passages from the Bible in his ruling. Moore's statement on his decision referred to homosexuality as "an evil disfavored under the law," "an inherent evil," a "detestable and an abominable sin," and "an act so heinous that it defies one's ability to describe it."
According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Moore, in his February 15, 2002 ruling, cites passages from the books of Genesis and Leviticus and favorably cites anti-sodomy laws in legal codes stretching back to the sixth century. Moore writes, "No matter how much society appears to change, the law on this subject has remained steadfast from the earliest history of the law, and that law is and must be our law today. The common law designates homosexuality as an inherent evil, and if a person openly engages in such a practice, that fact alone would render him or her an unfit parent."
According to the Family Research Council, Moore was quoting from Alabama statutes, lower court opinions and the English Common Law, which is still the law in Alabama.
The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, a gay rights group, filed a complaint against Moore, alleging that his comments showed he could not be impartial. The Associated Press reported that the complaint has recently been thrown out, since the Judicial Inquiry Commission in Birmingham said it found no violation of the Alabama Canons of Judicial Ethics. There is now a movement to include sexual orientation in the Alabama hate crimes law.
Where do we, as Americans, draw the line between church and state? Where does patriotism end and religion begin? Should lawmakers be encouraged to use their religious beliefs when making objective decisions?
The wall between separation of church and state is slowly being chipped away. This issue is important to all Americans, not just those who wish to protect their civil rights, but those who wish to protect their religious rights as well. The First Amendment was not written to discourage religion, but to protect it. With these unprecedented events, we are in danger now more than ever of becoming a Christian nation, whether we like it or not.
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