Preserving the separation of church and state

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By Rick Howell

One of America’s great traditions is the constitutional right to religious freedom. It means that anyone and everyone in this country can choose to practice any religion that speaks to them.

It also means that anyone and everyone has the right to have nothing whatsoever to do with religion. The right to practice atheism is also guaranteed in the constitution. Again, what’s important here is religious freedom, with emphasis on the word “freedom.” In America, you can believe or not believe.

With its “establishment clause,” our First Amendment also mandates what Thomas Jefferson referred to as “a wall of separation” between church and state. For many decades, the courts have agreed with him, refusing to sanction any situation where the government promotes or endorses Christianity or any other religion.

For some people, “Christian conservatives,” this is unacceptable. They appear to believe that the federal government itself should be in the business of recruiting new Christians. The fundamentalists have the most contempt for separation of church and state. Their version of Christianity comes with an ultra-conservative political philosophy that many of us don’t believe is really “Christian” at all.

Therefore, the battle to keep church and state separate, as the Constitution mandates, has to be continually fought. That’s where Americans United for Separation of Church and State enters the fray. Since 1947, AU has been on the frontlines of this battle.

I’ve written before about having formed a Lynchburg chapter of AU in 2005, the year after George W. Bush was narrowly returned to office. The late Jerry Falwell had bragged that “evangelicals” would be the difference in the election, and it looked to me like he was right. Sadly, too many people were prepared to ignore Bush’s disastrous policies and vote for him “because he’s a Christian.”

Since then, our local chapter has had some successes. In one area public school system, Gideons International had been sending people into elementary schools, barging into classrooms, disrupting the teacher, and handing out Bibles. Students who didn’t take one were sometimes ridiculed by their peers: (“What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you want a Bible? Don’t you believe in Jesus?”).

After our chapter contacted the superintendent, the policy was quietly changed. The courts have consistently ruled that religious groups must not enter a public school property for the sake of proselytizing.

Even though I left Lynchburg, our chapter has continued to do its work under new leadership. Earlier this year, I was happy to be selected as a member of AU’s National Advisory Council, and I’m looking forward to my first meeting in Washington, D.C. in November.

Nationally, AU fights every day for the separation of church and state. One such current case involves a Missouri Army base that offered soldiers a “free day away” from camp. But that “free day” came with a requirement to attend a Baptist church service. Clearly, the Pentagon should not be in the business of promoting any religion.

Another case involved a New Jersey high school football coach who required his players to kneel down and pray with him before a game. Those who didn’t want to participate were told to “wait in the bathroom.” The school system itself joined with AU in litigation to prevent the coach from forcing his personal religious views on his players.

Those who can’t see this issue but one way because they’ve been indoctrinated with “Christian nation” dogma should check out AU’s Web site at www.au.org

Those who think AU is simply an “atheist” organization are flat wrong. Like the executive director, Barry Lynn, a Christian minister, I believe in God and in the separation of church and state, and there is absolutely no contradiction between those two beliefs.

Rick Howell, a Bedford native, is a member of the Roanoke City Democratic Committee, and can be reached by e-mail at NewCenHowell@aol.com