On The Road Again

Traveling To Assess The State Of States

As a frequent public speaker, I’m always surprised when other orators I listen to do not personalize their remarks with any local color. They could be giving the same speech in Anchorage or Memphis. Indeed, they probably are.

Perhaps it is just the nature of what I speak about that, sadly, always allows me to tell a number of tales about what is happening in the state, or even the city, I’m visiting. There seems always to be a threat to church-state separation no matter where I am, and I doubt that I’m personally a magnet for the crises.

I’ve just returned from 10 days on the road in Florida, Delaware and Maryland. True to form, I had no problems tying in local threats.

I did events in five Florida communities. The state’s legislative session was just beginning, and there was plenty of unpleasantness occurring. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, for example, announced the day before I left that he hoped to achieve a statewide school voucher plan.

In addition, bills have already been filed to bar Islamic Sharia law in the state (not that there is anybody trying to impose it, of course) and to designate “Merry Christmas” as the “official state greeting for December 25” (lest the dreaded “Happy Holidays” salute catch on even more – a phrase that is viewed by the Religious Right not as a sign of respecting diversity but a virtual slap in the face of the baby Jesus).

In Delaware, the legislature seems pretty calm, although I did remind the attendees at an event sponsored by the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union of some of the strange thoughts on religious liberty expressed by unsuccessful candidates during the last electoral campaign.

I was speaking at the Widener Law School, the venue where U.S. Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell seemed surprised that church-state separation was even in the Constitution. I commented that I was sure the audience was devastated that she had failed in her bid to be on “Dancing with the Stars.”

Finally, I arrived at an event in Baltimore, Md., just a day after a story broke that the principal of a local elementary and middle school had held a kind of “pray-in” before the standardized Maryland School Assessment test, urging that God help the students do well. I frankly thought you passed tests by having good teachers and studious pupils. Luckily, city education officials had already vowed to investigate the principal’s “Hail Mary” approach to educational excellence hours before I arrived.

I’d love to tell you that the folks I spoke to on this mini-whirlwind tour were optimistic about defeating everything that violates the First Amendment. However, they are not. Many feel that they are once again fighting a purely defensive battle in the state legislatures and Congress, battlefronts that changed so dramatically in the last election.

They are finding it necessary to correct a dizzying montage of loopy constitutional theories promoted by many in the Tea Party. I had hoped that there would be more real supporters of the Bill of Rights among this movement than I have seen so far.

Here in Washington, the fiscal conservatives seem to be willing to do the bidding of the social conservatives in the Religious Right. Almost without exception, they have already supported money for school vouchers in the District of Columbia, which go overwhelmingly to prop up religious schools, and have voted to defund Planned Parenthood because of what appear to be false claims made by a right-wing activist that the organization was aiding sex traffickers.

This cannot be a time when the challenges to fundamental principles paralyze us, however. I always try to remind people of two core principles of how Americans United operates. We agree with James Madison that it is best to complain about “the first experiment on our liberties.”

Of course, stopping government prayer services or aid to religious schools that evangelize and discriminate in hiring is more important than what designation goes to December 25 in Florida. But, any attempt to marginalize non-Christians should be an offense to all of us.

Second, we need to consistently let our elected officials know that separation of church and state is not some fringe issue lost to antiquity. Religious zealots think they have a private pipeline to God. Collateral to such thinking is the notion that they also have all the answers to prescribe the political policies that should guide healthcare, judicial reform, provision of social services and even “appropriate” art for museums. (Remember the furor over the 11-second video clip on display at the National Portrait Gallery of ants crawling over a crucifix late last year that is sure to lead to calls later this year for defunding of such “blasphemous” creations).

It is up to us to remind elected officials that they have a responsibility to be bold in looking out for examples of unconstitutional corrosion of the idea that we make decisions in America based on commonly shared values. Those include liberty of conscience for individuals and a healthy distance between the institutions of government and religion. We don’t look to anyone’s interpretation of any holy scripture to guide our common path.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.