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Freethought Association of West Michigan
Meeting Minutes for June 25, 2003; #

Topic: Why the Religious Right is Wrong About Separation of Church and State

It was announced that our six- year anniversary is coming up soon.
Our next meeting on July 9 will be on the topic of "The Psychology of Religion-Research on Religiosity, Fundamentalism, and Atheism" to be presented by Luke Galen, Assistant Professor of Psychology at GVSU and FAoWM member.
That day- July 9- will also be our next board meeting, with further discussion on long term planning. It will commence at 5:30PM, prior to the 7PM regular meeting. All members are welcome to attend.

An update to the schedule of meeting topics is the July 23 meeting where Renu Malhotra and Fred Stella, of the Interfaith Dialogue Association will present "The Philosophy of Vedanta." Other changes and updates are noted in the schedule sheet available at meetings and can be seen online at our website.

Our topic for this meeting was "Why the Religious Right is Wrong about Separation of Church and State" and was presented by special guest speaker, Rob Boston, of the Washington based church and state watchdog group, Americans United for Separation of Church & State. He is the author of a book by the same title as this presentation's as well as Close Encounters with the Religious Right and Pat Robertson: The Most Dangerous Man in America? He was flown in by FAoWM for this timely presentation, especially in our current climate where Jefferson's "wall of separation" is regularly besieged and eroded.

He began with items from the news from abroad and then here in the U.S. It was noted that in countries where there is a state sponsorship of religion, the clergy tend to become more complacent. One cleric from Denmark, who asserted that God does not exist could not be fired because he was a state employee. Religious practices are more likely to become merely ceremonial with citizens going through the motions for tradition's sake. In one country where 85% of the population belongs to the State church only 5% attend regularly. Many Europeans scratch their heads over why so many Americans listen to TV preachers. Far from weakening religiosity, as the Religious Right asserts, our Constitutional separation of government from religion has made our country the most religious industrialized nation, with more diversity of faiths, vibrant expression and freedom to flourish than anywhere else on the planet. We have also the liberty to not participate in any faith community and, officially at least, no religious test for public office (see Article VI of the Constitution). Houses of worship have no governmental oversight and members are free to practice their faith in the manner they choose and since no faith group is favored over another by the government, they may all fade or bloom by dint of their own efforts, neither impeded nor sponsored by the State.

In articles Boston brought regarding items in the news from the U.S., there were examples of the erosion of science education due to the efforts to get Creationism into the classroom or water down the scientific theory of evolution, the wearing away of individual rights and most germane to this discussion, the assault on religious freedom by the Religious Right via ongoing attempts to wed our secular government to their personal religious beliefs. That is an important point: it is not an attempt to empower religion per se-there is no desire in the Religious Right for Taoism or Islam or Buddhism, for instance, to thrive, but rather to give special favor to Christianity and in general the Protestant sects-especially the more Fundamentalist varieties-to hold sway over our citizenry.

Boston took pains to counter the myth that being opposed to the Religious Right's agenda is somehow anti-religious or anti-American. Quite the opposite, in fact, since keeping government from meddling in religious activity only serves to make for a robustly liberated religious populace. And since our Bill of Rights contained in our American Constitution-the supreme law of the land-is what Church- State separationists defend and uphold, it could scarcely be any more pro-American. He also noted that many religious leaders are beholden to these central laws and are deeply committed to ensuring their survival. Also, while the Religious Right has concentrated almost exclusively on making major inroads into the GOP, those staunch Republicans who want less governmental intrusion into private affairs, among some other stripes along the spectrum of this political party, are also strong supporters of a decoupling religious faith from state and federal governance.

Some specific separation-eroding activities spearheaded by our current administration were mentioned, including the controversial "Faith - based Initiatives." This is clearly unconstitutional in that it favors and funds certain private sects with public tax money. Likewise, school vouchers are a way to get public monies into the coffers of private and religious schools. It is misleadingly touted as providing an improved educational environment for disadvantaged, poorer students, and given euphemistic labels such as "choice" but since these schools retain their ability to discriminate against any student for any reason as to admissions, participation or expulsion, and since the costs not covered by vouchers still exceeds what poor families can typically afford and these students have further burdens of transportation and other peripheral challenges, there really is little validity to these arguments of assistance to the downtrodden. There is also no empirical evidence of these schools performing better, even though they can select from the "cream of the crop" and are not required to deal with special educational or behavioral challenges. And they can be exempt from governmental oversight, testing or other ways of determining success and they do not have to work against constricting budgetary impediments or follow strict guidelines for instruction.

Other faith-based service providers can likewise, under the Faith- Based Initiative, take government money while refraining from operating under the provisions of our secular government. They can discriminate against who they hire, have operations (in some cases) that are little more than Bible study groups and force service recipients to participate as captives for their religious proselytizing-yet still get public money from a government that supposedly operates to uphold the Constitution, which does not allow for these practices by those receiving such funding. It forces everyone to support sectarian agencies regardless of their personal beliefs and backgrounds.

The Religious Right push for such mergers of public support for private entities makes no more sense than getting money from your neighbors to finance your private library, especially when a public one is available. And (unconstitutionally) taking more money out of the already fiscally restricted public funds for the benefit of sectarian services, is likewise to the detriment of established public ones. While there is no evidence that faith-based services and institutions do a better job than their public, secular counterparts, the drawing away of funds from the latter makes for an ever harder, more challenging way to go for them. If they were serious about improving education and other public services for the greater society, the Religious Right would invest in and commit to those providers who serve the bulk of the nation, rather than leeching away resources and then lambasting them for the consequences of these actions.

Specific individuals were also mentioned. One who has gotten a good deal of media attention is chief justice for the supreme court of the state of Alabama, Roy Moore. He became the darling of the Religious Right by his insinuation of hand carved Ten Commandments displays in courts of law and a huge stone one in the Justice Building of the city of Montgomery. In public legal institutions where all who are served are to be treated equally, having religious symbols of one group only automatically reduces to second- class citizenry all other groups and individuals who enter them. It even cheapens Christianity for the very devout who adhere to the symbols on display (crosses, the Decalogue, etc.) sincerely. Such matters of private, personal faith and conviction made into kitsch and garish displays, is anathema to such individuals. Like the insistence by some to have loud public announcement prayers at sporting events (which incidentally is in defiance of Jesus' own prohibition against public, showy prayer), this is mostly a means to bully and make a power play over others.

The Decalogue is defended by the Religious Right for being displayed in the public legal realm because it is asserted to be the foundation for our American system of laws. However, the commandments dealing with not stealing or murdering, for instance are universal-not an American phenomenon. Others are flatly opposed to our secular and religiously neutral laws of the nation, which does not hold that its citizens believe in any god or gods, or forbid the making of "graven images" (ummm, isn't the two-ton stone Decalogue erected by Moore a good example of flouting this prohibition?) or view women as the chattel property of men or recognize an official national Sabbath. That there is more than one version of this listing of commandments is also problematic in its exclusion of denominations that hold to a differing version. This was at issue in mandatory Bible recitations in public schools too, where some aspects of different faith's Bibles were at odds with each other.

The supreme document of our country is the Constitution, which to the dismay of the Religious Right is thoroughly secular. There is no mention of God or even any vague Deistic reference to a higher power, Jesus or Christianity in it anywhere to be found. The Jeffersonian/ Madisonian models of non-establishment of religion, intrinsic separation of government from religion and rights and liberties of all people to practice their faith without intrusion, suppression or sponsorship are some of the foundations of the nation. The myth that we were founded as a Christian Nation, as promulgated by the Religious Right continually, has absolutely no basis in Constitutional law or the thinking and writings of the Founders. And then there is that pesky Treaty with Tripoli where it was officially stated in flat, direct terms that our country was not founded as a Christian Nation.

The insinuation of "In God we trust" and "One nation under God" on our money and Pledge of Allegiance, respectively, are treated, Boston quipped, as if they were hammered in directly by the Founders upon inception of our country. In fact, these were reactions to the fear of "godless Communism" and other factors and didn't take place until the 1950's. There are also remarks and documents that support the "Christian Nation" ideas, but these are on the periphery, with little or no power, flatly overturned, or disregarded and embarrassing. The Northwest Ordinance is held up, for example, by the Religious Right for its wording as if it has the same central role in our government as the U.S. Constitution. Boston observed that in the 19th century, fundamentalist clerics bemoaned the godless nature of the Constitution and strove to amend it to make references to God and Christianity. Now, however, the spiritual descendants of these people are making wild distortions to somehow hallucinate such meaning into the same document.

Our Constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms benefit everyone and therefore under the right circumstances everyone is a strong Church- State separationist. When it is your own personal faith beliefs that others seek to infringe upon, you do not want the Government giving official sanction and blessing to those who oppress your religious practices. While many people have known extreme prejudice and religious suppression in this nation, it is the application of our secular principles and over riding Constitutional law that has remedied these wrongs. And while the majority religion may be free to dominate other faiths (and people of no faith) in the Religious Right's dreams and fantasies, there is no guarantee that there's will be the dogma in ascendance always. Christianity, being a religion with vast splinterings, sects, and doctrinal differences, does not lend itself well, anyway, to being a single monolithic national religion…which brand of Christianity is to achieve headship as the governing law of the land? Like creationism, where there is no central defining theory and Young Earthers, Old Earthers, Intelligent Design adherents, Day-Agers, etc. all having disparate, highly emotionally charged worldviews, the Religious Right either does not understand or does not perceive the problems inherent in their strategy to make manifest a truly Christian nation.

With the increase in non-Christian faiths in our country and "do-it-yourself" spiritual groups, not tied to any specific religion, on the upswing, it becomes ever more a contentious issue when one religion tries to link itself with the powers of the State. It becomes, in fact, a recipe for major disaster. Do the Religious Right leaders believe there would be a smooth transition in their becoming the State religion, or do they see it as part of the Endtimes scenario…there is certainly a great deal of war rhetoric to be seen in the writings and speeches of Religious Right leadership. The harshest subspecies of the Religious Right is undoubtedly the Reconstructionists, or Dominionists, who make no bones about their plans to refashion the United States into that of the Middle East during biblical times and have a belief in a draconian system of punishment for a whole suite of behaviors, including what they see as "sins" (worship of "false gods" etc) and defiance of one's parents, among other things that are thankfully not under the scope of American jurisprudence, but would be Bible Law that all would be subjected to in their vision of America. It would be an error to magnify the numbers of this branch of the Religious Right, but just as the more mainstream R. Rt. has made significant inroads into the weft and weave of the Republican party, the more radical extremist versions of this group are also influential beyond their numbers into the main body of Religious Right. Just as there are "stealth candidates" with an extreme agenda for public offices, the more extremist groups in the Religious Right also cloak their goals and agendas that would be unacceptable to moderates and others while forming bridges and links within the larger party.

Exposure is the chief weapon against the more extreme groups. The majority of Americans, even among strong conservatives, do not hold to the views espoused by them. Speaking to our group directly, Boston said that it is now the freethinkers' turn to demand their rights. Even though firmly in the shadow of Christianity for size, the non-religious has numbers far exceeding that of other minority religions who have demanded their rights. And we do not have to go it alone. The Religious Right agenda runs against the rights of all minority groups and women. Groups can gather around the central unifying theme of equal protection as granted in Constitutional law that the Religious Right wants to dismantle.

Weapons mentioned by the Assistant Communications director for Americans United included learning our American history better and accessing groups such as his, the ACLU and others for assistance, guidance and support. Also mentioned was becoming more involved politically and/or supporting those who speak for you. The Religious Right coined the phrase "15% Solution", knowing that they did not have to change the hearts and minds of a majority of eligible voters but had only to target a small percentage of people who agreed with them and ensure that they get to the polls on election days. Voter apathy is one of the main reasons a minority group that is well organized and funded can get a disproportionate foothold in policy planning and agenda setting for larger society.

He also spoke of supporting public education and not allowing the censorship, book banning, and dumbing down of quality science education and other practices of the Religious Right. And he talked about writing letters to the editor. This portion of the newspaper is one of the highest read of the entire paper. When the false accusations and statements and revisionist history of the Religious Right go unchallenged and are all that are seen by the reader, it becomes a matter of fact for them. Grassroots is where the power has to come from, he contended. Some 70% of support for the Religious Right comes from fewer than 1000 very wealthy donors!

While in his talk, Boston had a message of the dire times we live in now, he ended on a positive note. Gradually, over time, there is progress. The Constitution and vision of the Framers has stood the test of time and weathered many storms. Rights cannot be removed from a previously free people too far before there is backlash.

In the Q&A portion we had a lively discussion. It was mentioned how the Unitarians are often socially and politically active in areas oppositional to the Far Right agenda. There was talk of how the Religious Right is hijacking the more moderate camps and going under the guise of speaking for Christianity to be seen as a positive force for truth justice and the American way.

Since Religious Right organizations operate legally in many operations, we need to be more assertive in employing those same strategies. They are free to donate books to libraries, for instance-and they do. We should provide an alternative. It was mentioned in this regard that people of minority religions and non-believers do not missionize or proselytize as a rule and that the "opposition" so to say is very vocal and fraught with the zeal of the black and white thinker who believes his crusade is a holy one. We discussed, too, items on the Religious Right agenda but not technically related to them, publicly, such as abstinence programs.

In talking about public gatherings where prayer is given at the beginning, it was noted that since, legally, they have to permit all forms of prayer, Wiccans and other minority groups can demand to lead with their prayers. Since this is awkward for the majority, they sometimes back down. As has been mentioned in other FAoWM minutes, those who want to force prayer in school, would be appalled if the students were directed to sit on mats and face Mecca and pray to "Allah." There were many other items mentioned but one that gives pause in particular is that the "Roadmap to Peace" outlined by the Administration is based on the Bible with boundaries as laid out in that text. It is a frightening thought to realize that current complex geopolitical decisions are being made based on Revelations.

Secretary: Charles LaRue

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