Church, State & The Next Century

Experts, Activists Discuss Future Of First Amendment

As the nation streaks toward a new millennium, the picture regarding church-state separation is decidedly murky. Is the country going to fortify the wall of separation between church and state or lower it considerably? To shed some light on that question, Americans United decided to devote its 1999 national conference to the theme "Church, State & the Next Century: Securing the Future of Individual Freedom." Held Oct. 31-Nov. 1 in Washington, D.C., the event brought together leading authorities, commentators, activists and academics to assess the future of church-state separation.

In a series of panels, experts discussed and deliberated issues like vouchers, charitable choice, religion in public schools, the free exercise of religion, the strength of the Religious Right and other timely topics. In addition, attendees had opportunities to attend special "breakout" sessions geared toward grassroots activism, and a Religious Liberty Awards Banquet was held on Sunday night.

The conference opened with remarks by Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn and John Webster, president of the AU Board of Trustees. Webster discussed Americans United's recent growth, including the relocation of the national office to a larger facility on Capitol Hill last July, and explained how the organization is using resources like the World Wide Web to attract new support. Lynn gave a rundown of Americans United's church-state battles over the past 12 months, highlighting key victories and outlining the issues the organization will face in 2000. Two panel discussions followed.

Religious Freedom and Public Schools

This panel focused on current threats to public education, including vouchers and attempts by Religious Right groups to force fundamentalist Christianity into the schools. Panelists were Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network; the Rev. Wayne Robinson, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ft. Myers, Fla.; Dr. Rick Hess, assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia, and Lee Berg, organizational specialist with the National Education Association. The panel was moderated by Maribeth Oakes, assistant director of government relations for the National PTA.

Smoot opened the session by outlining how activists in Texas this year defeated a voucher plan supported by Gov. George W. Bush. As the battle began, Smoot noted, the situation looked grim: The state Senate had previously voted on a similar scheme and tied, 68-68. Bush, the lieutenant governor and other top politicians in the state backed the plan, and pro-voucher groups had spent millions to support pro-voucher legislative candidates in 1998.

"The voucher lobby tasted blood," Smoot said.

A flurry of voucher bills was introduced, but none gained majority support in either chamber. Smoot said the anti-voucher forces won by pulling together a broad coalition of groups opposed to vouchers, conducting research that showed there was little grassroots support for the concept, organizing religious leaders and explaining to people how vouchers would draw support away from the public schools.

Smoot recommended that anti-voucher activists make their efforts bipartisan, stay on the offensive and stress to parents that the plans will hurt public schools. She added, "And don't rest. The other side does not."

Hess, a social scientist who has studied voucher programs in 57 urban districts, summarized current research on the effect of vouchers on student performance. Noting that the research is murky, Hess said there is little solid proof that introducing "competition" between public and private schools will boost student performance.

Hess conceded that parochial schools spend less per student than public schools yet graduate a higher percentage of youngsters. But he pointed out that private religious schools educate very few special education pupils and are often subsidized by their parent religious bodies.

Robinson recounted how activists in Lee County, Fla., won a battle over religion in public schools. The controversy began in 1996 after the school board voted 4-1 to adopt a Bible curriculum that many people perceived as stacked toward the fundamentalist perspective.

"Respecting another's faith is good," Robinson said. "Allowing one version of Scripture to be imposed on others is not."

The situation sparked a lawsuit, but further legal action became unnecessary two years later when two Religious Right members of the board were voted out of office and replaced by moderates. Robinson said the community learned the importance of paying close attention to school board races. He recommended that activists "force candidates for school board to answer tough questions in public" and said turning out the mainstream vote is crucial. He also recommended forming interfaith coalitions, finding good candidates to run for public office and stressed the importance of working with the media.

Lastly, Robinson warned everyone to be ready to work hard when they confront well-funded Religious Right groups. Reminding people that separation of church and state is "still religious liberty's strongest safeguard," he said, can be a taxing job.

Berg, the final speaker, blasted the Religious Right for demonizing public schools and teachers, telling the crowd, "There is a great deal of money to be made in trashing public education and those who work in it."

An ordained Baptist minister, Berg lambasted the Religious Right for obsessing over prayer in schools. Citing Jesus' admonition that believers should pray alone in private, Berg remarked, "Why are we fighting over prayer if the founder of the Christian faith gave pretty specific instructions about its intent and purpose? Religion is wonderful from my perspective as a person of faith, but it is best experienced freely and by choice. Those who promote religion in the public schools run roughshod over the rights of others. When anyone's rights are diminished, all of ours are."

Religious Freedom and the Judiciary

Sunday's second panel focused on where the Supreme Court and lower federal courts might be headed on church-state issues. Moderated by AU's Lynn, the panel included input from Steven G. Gey, professor of law at Florida State University's College of Law; the Rev. Robert E. Drinan, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center; and Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice.

Gey summarized general trends in church-state law at the Supreme Court, pointing out that members of the high court are deeply divided over the issue and as a result "they don't really know what they're doing anymore." Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor, he said, are the swing votes in church-state cases.

This confusion, Gey said, has trickled down to lower federal courts, which have issued conflicting opinions on some church-state issues. Quipped Gey, "You get different constitutions depending on where you are in the country. That's very unfortunate."

Gey said the court appears to be wavering on its longstanding ban on taxpayer funding of religion, and he believes it may soon approve some forms of direct funding. On the topic of school prayer, he noted that the high court simply refuses to hear most cases, creating confusion in the lower courts. Other church-state issues, such as the display of religious symbols on public property and the free exercise of religion, he charged, are in a similar state of flux.

But Gey said the situation may soon change. He noted that as many as four Supreme Court justices may leave the bench within the next few years, giving the next president an opportunity to reshape the Supreme Court for decades.

Aron picked up on this theme, telling the crowd that the 2000 election will be pivotal to determining the direction of church-state separation. She noted the likelihood of vacancies on the Supreme Court but also pointed out that many seats are expected to open on lower federal courts as well.

Aron criticized the major presidential contenders in both parties for not talking about the Supreme Court. She also warned attendees that high court appointments are often one way conservative presidents placate the Religious Right. "They may appear disinterested, yet this issue is very important to the Religious Right and the Christian Coalition," she said.

Drinan, a Roman Catholic priest who served 10 years in the House of Representatives representing Massachusetts, summarized current issues and the activity of the Religious Right. He recalled that during his time in Congress, he was frequently attacked by conservative religious groups, even though he is a clergyman. He criticized the Religious Right for adding strict anti-abortion provisions to bills funding population control programs overseas.  

Drinan urged the crowd to oppose efforts by Religious Right groups to use the federal government as an instrument of evangelism.

"They want to impose their religion on foreign policy," Drinan said. "Deep down, these people are saying, 'We want to export Christianity.'"

Religious Freedom and Politics

Conference attendees reconvened Monday morning for a lively session on the Religious Right and politics. The session, moderated by Bob Abernathy, host of PBS's "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly," included panelists Eleanor Clift, Newsweek columnist; Susan R. Cullman, co-chair of the Republican Pro-Choice Coalition; John C. Green, professor of political science at the University of Akron; Terry Jeffrey, editor of Human Events, a conservative weekly newspaper, and Americans United Executive Director Lynn.

Green opened the session by explaining that the Religious Right is a multi-level movement that at its top consists of national organizations like the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family. Below that is a level of activists, which, Green said, consists of about 150,000 people. Below that is a constituency of voters who hold conservative views and are receptive to the Religious Right's message.

"The activist core really is the movement," Green said. "As the activist core goes, so goes the Religious Right." He added that this core is smaller than it was a few years ago but reminded attendees, "These individuals are very intense in their beliefs."

The Religious Right's potential constituency, Green said, accounts for about 15 percent of the electorate. He said they are mostly Republican, and the majority are evangelical Protestants. While not ready to say the Religious Right is in decline, Green did agree that the 2000 election is critical.

"I think the activist core of the Religious Right will be very active in the next election," he said. "Many see this as their last chance." The Religious Right voting bloc, he added, could affect the outcome of the presidential race in 12 to 20 states, if the election is close.

Clift asserted that the role the Religious Right will play in 2000 remains uncertain. She noted that GOP front-runner Bush is working to keep the Religious Right in his camp without alienating moderate voters. "It looks right now as through Bush is steering a rather Clintonian center, and he has lulled the right to sleep," she said.

But Clift added that the situation could change. Religious Right activists, she noted, make up a large percentage of Iowa's Republican caucus voters, and they will doubtless try to pin Bush down on abortion before the primary. She also pointed out that national polls show that a ticket headed by Bush with New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman as the vice presidential candidate would be strong, but that Religious Right activists will not tolerate the pro-choice Whitman on the ticket. They would leave the Republican convention if Bush put her on, Clift said, and this would be devastating to the party. "The Religious Right is an essential element of the Republican Party," Clift observed. "The Republicans need them. They are the shock troops. They are every bit as important as labor and feminists are to the Democrats." 

Terry began his remarks by saying, "I'm told many here see the Religious Right as a threat. I'm here to tell you, I hope you're right."

Terry said he expects the Religious Right to be very active in the 2000 campaign and said Bush should not take the support of this wing of the GOP for granted. He outlined a scenario whereby Bush could be knocked out of the race if social issues conservatives grow angry over his "triangulation" strategy of presenting himself as a moderate on issues like abortion and coalesce behind another candidate, such as Steve Forbes.

By putting a pro-choice candidate on the ticket, Terry said, Bush would "expel Religious Right activists out of the party.... If George Bush moves away from these values, it doesn't matter what Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed say, social issues conservatives won't vote for him."

Cullman took issue with some of Jeffrey's observations.  She said the abortion issue has needlessly split the GOP and criticized the Religious Right for making this issue a litmus test for Republican presidential candidates.

"As a Republican, I believe in less government in all aspects of American life, and I believe anti-choice laws go against that principle," she said. Cullman charged that the GOP's emphasis on this issue hurt the party in 1998, especially in California, where the Republican gubernatorial candidate was trounced by a pro-choice Democrat.

Cullman said her group will work to soften or remove the strong anti-abortion plank in the Republican platform. "We believe that when the platform moderates, many of these Religious Right activists will give up on the Republican Party and perhaps on politics," she said.

AU's Lynn wrapped up by criticizing both Bush and Vice President Al Gore for "running for national preacher" and proposing charitable choice plans that would divert taxpayer dollars to houses of worship.

Concerning the Religious Right, Lynn labeled the view that the movement is dying as "dangerously optimistic" and said it could easily get a second wind. He noted that TV preacher Robertson and other Religious Right "pragmatists" are so eager to win the White House for the GOP that they are going to support Bush "even if they have to hold their noses while voting for him."

Lynn called the composition of the Supreme Court the most important issue of the campaign, telling the crowd, "You don't need a constitutional amendment to ban abortion or weaken the separation of church and state if you have the Supreme Court on your side."

A lively question-and-answer session focused in part on the role Pat Buchanan could play in the presidential race if he secures the Reform Party nomination. Clift dismissed Buchanan as a marginal candidate and "yesterday's news," but Green and Jeffrey opined that the conservative commentator could cause problems for both parties: He could cost Bush the election but put more conservatives in the House and Senate, since his supporters would be likely to vote Republican in the other races on the ballot. 

Religious Freedom and Social Services

The conference's final panel examined charitable choice plans and the growing problems presented by mergers between sectarian and non-sectarian hospitals. Pamela Haughton-Denniston, a newly elected member of the Americans United Board of Trustees, moderated the session. Speakers were Willa Freiband, public affairs director of Planned Parenthood of the Mid-Hudson Valley in New York; Melissa Rogers, associate general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs; the Rev. Carlton Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice; and Scott Barstow, director of public policy and information for the American Counseling Association.

Freiband explained how activists in New York blocked a proposed merger between three hospitals C two non-sectarian and one Roman Catholic. The plan called for all three hospitals to adopt Catholic directives forbidding abortion, the distribution of birth control devices and sterilizing operations. When word got out, Freiband said, "The community was outraged but feared it was already a done deal."

A coalition formed to oppose the merger and ultimately stopped it. Freiband said involvement from medical professionals and clergy was essential. She also recommended working with the media and said simple grassroots efforts like lawn signs, letters to the editor and billboards helped spread the word. AA groundswell of public opinion can make a difference," she told attendees. Freiband also recommended that activists explore legal action to block mergers, noting that federal anti-trust laws may apply in some cases.

Veazey called the hospital merger problem "a growing phenomenon" and said it has the potential to threaten any American's health care. The Catholic directives, he noted, are so strict they even forbid the distribution of condoms to patients infected with AIDS.

"The imposition of Catholic teachings on those of non-Catholic faiths interferes with the American tradition of liberty," Veazey said. "The good news is, there are solutions to the problem, there are legal avenues that can be pursued."

The rest of the panel's time dealt with charitable choice, a policy concept that allows houses of worship to use tax dollars to run social services. Outlining the threat to church-state separation posed by charitable choice, Rogers called the proposal "the wrong way to do right." Charitable choice, she said, is designed to address real needs Abut needlessly threatens religious liberty and church-state separation."

Although charitable choice is a growing phenomenon that has been endorsed by presidential candidates Bush and Gore, Rogers noted that it has received little attention in the media. Rogers urged politicians to slow down, noting that charitable choice schemes raise many questions C for example, can churches that accept government money still discriminate on the basis of religion when hiring staff for their social programs?

Rogers also said that charitable choice would inevitably lead the state to play favorites among religious groups. "There is simply not enough tax money to fund every religion in this country," she said. "Thus, our elected leaders will pick and choose. This will provide one more opportunity for politicians to use religion as a political football."

Barstow outlined his organization's concerns that government will begin giving religious groups money to set up programs for people wrestling with substance abuse and that this will decrease the amount of money available for secular programs that have high rates of success.

Many religious groups, Barstow said, persist in seeing substance abuse as a moral problem when new research indicates there may be a strong genetic component to addiction as well. Simply focusing on the spiritual aspects, he said, may not adequately address the problem.

"It's a very complex type of disorder," Barstow said. "Many needs must be met for someone to break through and overcome the disorder."

Aside from the main panel sessions, conference attendees also had the opportunity to attend a special legislative training workshop run by Julie Segal, Americans United's legislative counsel. On Sunday afternoon and Monday morning, attendees could choose from several breakout sessions. Topics included Media Training, Effective Outreach to the Religious Community, Human Rights and Church-State Separation, Using the Internet as a Resource, Chapter Building, and Reproductive Choice and Church-State Separation. Meanwhile, 45 law and theology students attended a church-state study session organized by AU General Counsel Steven K. Green

After the final Americans United conference session, many participants stayed in Washington to visit their senators and members of the House of Representatives to discuss church-state issues with them.       

At the conclusion of the event, AU's Lynn thanked the attendees, some of whom traveled from as far away as Alaska, Hawaii and California, for coming to the event. Lynn noted that all of the conference's main sessions were taped by C-SPAN and broadcast to a national audience. (The two sessions on Monday morning were broadcast live initially and replayed several times throughout the rest of the week.) Following the live broadcast, Americans United's website received a near-record number of hits.