Flex Muscle to Rescue the Establishment Clause (June/July 2003)

Karl Rove runs into the Oval Office, shakes its current occupant awake and tells Dubya he has “really exciting news!”

Rove adds: “Well, there’s good news and bad news. But first the good news. You’ll never guess who’s on the phone! It’s God . . . he’s come back to earth to meet with you and answer your prayers! He’s going to help you install a theocracy in the USA, just like we’ve been wanting!”

Bush: “Then what’s the bad news?”

Rove: “He’s calling from Mecca.”

The state of the separation of church and state today in our country is no laughing matter.

Of course, the punchline of that joke is the rub. You saw that Pat Robertson, on the 700 Club in March, actually said, “It’s going to be absolutely imperative to set up a constitution and safeguards that say we will maintain a secular state” in Iraq.

Robertson and his cohorts “get” it when the theocracy would be Muslim, but they can’t wait to install Jesus Christ as head of our country.

Why is religion bad for government?

You’ve read the many eloquent quotes: Madison warning of the bloodstained strife when religion and state unite; Thomas Paine noting that persecution is not an original feature in any religion, but is always the strongly marked feature of religions established by law; Jefferson referring to “this loathsome combination of Church & State” (letter to Clay, 1815).

But maybe you’ll be as startled as I was when, in preparing for this workshop, I realized the onslaught against the Establishment Clause in just the last month. It’s an eye-popping list.

Bush didn’t just declare war against Iraq. He’s declared war against the Jeffersonian wall of separation between church and state. We are seeing whole chunks of it dismantled before our eyes.

The list below is a small sampling of the recent entanglements between the federal government and religion, revealing an ominous trend toward theocracy.

* * *

April 3. Rev. Franklin Graham announces in an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times that his questionable Christian relief agency, Samaritan’s Purse, is lying in wait to attack Iraq with their “20,000 ambassadors of Christ,” to “share their faith” along with their relief supplies. Ditto for the Southern Baptist Convention.

The Pentagon, knowing of the plans of this bible brigade to descend on Iraq, nevertheless invited Rev. Graham to give a Good Friday sermon at the Pentagon. Muslim employees naturally protested, since Graham has called the Islam religion “very wicked and evil.”

Army Col. George Campbell, in defending the invitation, missed the point entirely, saying: “The service on Friday is not a political service. I don’t anticipate Rev. Graham will talk about anything except the death and resurrection of Christ.”

April 11. U.S. Secretary of Education Ron Paige told the Baptist Press, which did not misquote the substance of his remarks, that:

“All things equal, I would prefer to have a child in a school that has a strong appreciation for the values of the Christian community, where a child is taught to have a strong faith.” This figurehead of our public secular schools also indicated his support for taxpaid vouchers for religious education.

The Baptist Press reporter was fired for some extraneous minor misquotes when this blew up in the press; Paige, who was asked to resign by many groups (including the Foundation) and several politicians, remains the “champion” of our public schools.
April 18. The Boston Globe in May revealed some very bad news on the faith-based front that quietly happened in April. The U.S. Dept. of Labor adopted some good guidelines on April 4 prohibiting job training grants to be used for instruction in “religion, worship, prayer, or inherently religious practices,” to purchase “sacred literature” (such as bibles), or to promote religion.

On April 18, the references to “sacred literature” and secular requirements were deleted.

Late April. A U.N. committee on violence against women tried to pass wording that religion and custom should not be used to excuse such violence. These conclusions were tabled, after objections by Iran, Egypt, Sudan and the United States.
Many newspapers carried reports over the “surprise” of our government that Shiites plan to capitalize on the war, take over Iraq with a Muslim theocracy and install sharia laws. Naturally this is frightening especially to the women of Iraq, who have enjoyed western-like freedoms and have all but disappeared from public life since the U.S. launched its war.

How can Iraqi women count on the U.S. to defend women’s rights, given this U.N. vote, the cut-off of family planning/maternal health money to the U.N. by Bush, and our country’s record of voting in a bloc with Islamist and Catholic regimes in the U.N. on population, AIDS, children’s and women’s rights?

April. The Associated Press revealed that six Christian fundamentalist members of Congress are living in housing subsidized by a secretive religious fellowship that funds the National Prayer Breakfast, raising many concerns. Harper’s magazine in March carried an in-depth report on this fellowship, with its 70-odd years of historic ties to fascist dictators, among many world leaders.

April 30. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft asked the Supreme Court to toss out the 9th Circuit ruling against “under God” in the Pledge, saying:

“Our religious heritage has been recognized and celebrated for hundreds of years in the National Motto (“In God We Trust”).”

This motto was adopted in 1956, of course. Ashcroft also said in April that the “U.S. has God’s special blessing.”

May 1. Ashcroft participated in a National Day of Prayer rally at Capitol Hill. According to Associated Press:

“Attorney General John Ashcroft says President Bush commands America’s armed forces, but ‘understands that it is faith and prayer that are the sources of this nation’s strength.’ “

AP also reported:

“An organizer of the event on Capitol Hill asked God to make the United States a righteous example as Iraqis struggle to establish their own democracy.”
What’s wrong with this picture?

If I had a chance, I would remind Ashcroft and National Day of Prayer organizer Shirley Dobson of Focus on the Family what everyone in this room knows:

We are a secular, democratic republic, governed by the rule of law, not the bible. Our constitution is godless and our sovereignty rests in “We, the People,” not in a divinity. Ours was the first godless constitution ever adopted, and it is no coincidence that it is the longest-lived constitution in history.

AP reported that Alabama’s Attorney General Bill Pryor, nominated by Bush for a seat on the 11th Circuit, filed an “interesting” brief with the Supreme Court on Feb. 18 of this year. In the brief Pryor compared homosexual acts with “necrophilia, bestiality, child porn, incest, and pedophilia.”

Yes, Pryor filed this brief even before “Mr. Faith-Based Leader” Rick Santorum, No. 3-ranking Republican in the Senate, made his infamous April 21 statements about gays to Associated Press.

May 7. I was pleased to see that the National Association of Evangelicals meeting in D.C. “rebuked” Rev. Franklin Graham over his comments on Islam. They also “rebuked” Rev. Jerry Vines, past prez of the Southern Baptist Convention, for calling Muhammad “a demon-possessed pedophile,” and “rebuked” Jerry Falwell, for calling Muhammad “a terrorist.” But the Administration and the Pentagon have not rebuked them, and have in fact rewarded Rev. Graham.

Early May. Not to let the evangelicals off the hook. . . . Some of them met with Benny Elon, Israel’s minister of tourism, who came to Washington to court officials–and the Christian Coalition, CBN, Gary Bauer and other evangelicals–to ask them to lobby against Bush’s “roadmap for Middle East peace,” a two-state solution. Evangelists believe Israel is the site of the second coming, so they are important political allies to Israel in opposing a state for Palestine. The religion-inspired Mideast mess continues.
The U.S government launched an Arabic language satellite TV news station for Muslim Iraq, produced at the studio of Grace Digital Media in DC, which shares phones and offices with “Grace News Network,” dedicated to transmitting “evidence of God’s presence in the world today.”

Mayor Anthony A. Williams of the District of Columbia caved into the Administration and endorsed vouchers for DC schoolchildren, who would attend mainly parochial schools with funds robbed from public schools.
May 8. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to approve Bush’s nominee Carolyn B. Kuhl for the 9th Circuit despite her gruesome record, especially on abortion rights and women’s rights. Sen. Orrin Hatch (Mormon-UT) lauded her record as “exemplary.” Evidently he can’t tell the difference.

May 8. The House voted 220-204 on party lines to allow private groups receiving federal job training money to discriminate in hiring on the basis of religion, nullifying a prohibition in force for two decades. House Democratic leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, CA, called it “profoundly unwise to allow the federal government to fund religious discrimination.”

As far as I’m concerned, this House vote cancels out the April 9 pseudo-victory of passage of the so-called “Care Act” without specific reference to religion, which has been hailed by some as a great victory for state/church separation. It did fail to deliver what Bush asked for, which was full faith-based funding. But of course, Bush issued an executive fiat on Dec. 12 calling for faith-based funding of religious social services throughout federal government, making the bill redundant. It’s scary that the House in May went along with job-based discrimination, one of the primary stumbling blocks for Bush’s original faith-based initiatives bill.

Nuf said!

* * *

Focus on the Family, by the way, is giving Bush only a “B” grade for his work on faith-based funding, since he failed to win Congressional endorsement, and a future president could revoke Bush’s executive order calling for full faith-based funding. In early May their website also bragged that no legal challenges of faith-based funding have been won.

They manage to overlook our very important case, Freedom From Religion Foundation v. Tommy Thompson [later Scott McCallum] & Faith Works, which was the first lawsuit challenging faith-based funding to be fully adjudicated and won. Federal Judge Barbara Crabb last year found in our favor. She said the government grant of more than $800,000 to a group whose mission was “to lead homeless addicts to Christ” amounted to public-funded indoctrination and is illegal.

Her ruling was not appealed. It was a nationally significant victory, especially since Bush as a candidate had stopped by Faith Works in Milwaukee to “bless” the program and promise to funnel billions of dollars to similar faith-based schemes.

Unfortunately, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion against us in April in a secondary part of our Faith Works lawsuit challenging indirect state funding. Judge Posner ruled that the referral and subsidy of parolees by the state to the Faith Works program is tantamount to the school voucher program approved by the Supreme Court in Cincinnati last year. We have asked for an en banc hearing before the 7th Circuit, contesting the tortured reasoning.

Meanwhile, we carry on. We just filed a new federal lawsuit, challenging a labyrinthine faith-based entanglement between two Montana state offices with the “Montana Faith-Health Cooperative.” State and federal taxpayers are subsidizing the activities in the faith-health cooperative, as part of the Montana State University-Bozeman and the Montana Office of Rural Health.

Our attorney is also working on what will, we believe, be the first direct challenge at the cabinet level of public grants to multiple faith-based social service agencies.

* * *

In conclusion, we are seeing a fundamentalist Christian shadow government (maybe not so shadowy) in our own land.

We are seeing public officials, especially at the federal level, thumbing their noses at our precious Establishment Clause in their eagerness to unite church and state.

We have the religious right in control of all three branches of the federal government, with a minimum rightwing 5-4 control of the Supreme Court. As a writer in The Nation recently put it, the three federal branches are “all singing from the same hymnal.”
It’s truly time for all of us to take alarm and redouble any efforts we can make, as individuals and as members of organizations, at the local, state or federal level, to defend the besieged wall of separation.

The definitive American Religious Identification Survey reveals that the number of “nonreligious” American adults more than doubled between 1990 and 2001, while the number of “religious” and “Christians” declined. The “nonreligious” are now the fastest-growing segment of the population at 14.3%.

There are a lot more of us than Mormons (1.4%), Jews (1.8%), or Muslims (.3%), who are after all considered respected minorities whose rights as nonChristians deserve protection. When the ARIS survey asked how many adult Americans consider themselves secular, our numbers increase to 16%!

Flex some muscle!

Freedom From Religion Foundation