Church Inroads in Michigan Legislature by Sarah Rigg (June/July 2001)

I’ve heard it said that if the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was put up to a vote today, it probably would be defeated. The quote referred to attempts to put limitations on freedom of speech, but I suspect that it applies to freedom of religion as well.

I am the staff reporter for a small community newspaper in southeast Michigan, and a few weeks ago, I was assigned to take a trip to Lansing to get a firsthand look at how our state legislature operates by following a state representative for the day.

While I enjoyed my trip and learned a lot, I was appalled at the lack of separation of church and state at my home state’s capital.

The first conversation I had, upon arriving at the representative’s office, was with a paid staff member who thought that opposition to posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings was just kooky. He didn’t buy the argument that Protestants, Catholics and Jews all have slightly different versions of the commandments.

“It’s all the same, they’re just numbered differently,” he told me. I didn’t argue with him, since I thought it would be a contentious start to a long day. However, I did think to myself that while little details probably shouldn’t start wars among various religious sects, in the real world, they often do.

Later that morning, the House Oversight and Operations Committee approved a bill which would allow the commandments to be posted in public buildings such as courthouses and schools if the document is displayed with other “historical” documents. The bill also states that the commandments must not be displayed more prominently than other accompanying documents.

I thought it was telling that the minority members on the committee, one woman and one African American House member, voted “no” on passing the bill out of committee, while the three white, middle-aged men passed it with apparently no qualms. It didn’t surprise me that representatives with minority status were more sensitive to the fact that we have separation of church and state to protect minority religions from being bullied by the big “mainstream” ones.

The bill still has to be considered by the state Senate before it is passed into law.

Later that day, a staff member pointed out to me a prayer written by John F. Kennedy, which is engraved on a plaque in the capitol building. The staff member seemed to think the plaque was evidence that concerns over the Ten Commandments bill are overblown. I saw it as one more piece of evidence that the separation of church and state is widely disregarded and disrespected in Lansing.

In the afternoon before the gathered House members were to vote on several bills, a Protestant minister gave a prayer. I suppose I should have been happy that his prayer was relatively ecumenical, and did not end with “In Jesus’ Name.”

However, I did wonder how many days of the year the House invites a Jewish rabbi, a Muslim cleric, a Native American shaman, a Voudoun priest or a Wiccan priestess to give the invocation.

I’m uneasy about the way religion and politics are entwined these days, from Ten Commandments bills in several states to our president’s efforts to use public money to fund religious charities.

Proponents of displaying the Ten Commandments say it is a historical document that should be displayed along with other historical documents. However, the Ten Commandments is not just a historical document–it is a religious document, and not a very inclusive one.

How confident do you think a Hindu, a Native American who practices the traditional religion or an atheist would feel about receiving justice from a courthouse where the words “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” are engraved?

Bush’s plan to fund “faith-based” charities also alarms me. Several recent surveys of the American people indicate that about three-quarters of citizens agree with the idea of public funding for religious charities when we’re talking Catholic hospitals, or Jewish alcohol treatment centers.

But when you ask the public whether they want their tax dollars to fund charities run by Scientologists, witches or practitioners of Caribbean religions like Santeria, support from the public goes way down.

However, the government cannot be in the business of deciding which religions are legitimate and which ones are not.

That’s why we have a First Amendment.

Sarah Rigg, 28, is a staff reporter for a small community newspaper in southeast Michigan. She received a bachelor’s degree in English and Philosophy from Western Michigan University in 1994. “I’m a freethinker (after a struggle to leave fundamentalist Christianity behind) living with my husband and cat in Ypsilanti, Mich.,” she writes.

Freedom From Religion Foundation