In Times Of Trouble, The Watchdogs Must Bark Even Louder

The chickens have come home to roost. More specifically, my own son's high school was the site of an unusually flagrant violation of church-state separation a few days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson invited himself to speak at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia. Since his schedule allegedly did not permit him to come to the regular Friday assembly period, the principal dutifully "accommodated" his need to speak on Thursday by shortening all the academic class periods to encourage maximum attendance. Jesse then used the occasion to launch a prayer session, followed by a speech on peacekeeping liberally laced with Bible stories.

My son's friend Ankur Shah, a Hindu, posed the right question (and got quoted in Time magazine): "Can he do that?"

What was the principal thinking? What was Jackson thinking? Does this mean that anybody who is famous (or used to have a cable TV show, or is a minister) can now address this public school whenever he or she feels like it? I am awaiting a response from the school and its attorneys. It is one example, though, of the apparent feeling of some school and government leaders that the First Amendment is partially suspended in times of national crisis.

I believe just the opposite: it is in such times that our real commitment to fundamental principles should be highest. You might even say that this is a time when love of country demands renewed commitment to the separation of church and state as the first principle of constitutional democracy. This is the preeminent defining principle that stands in starkest contrast to the conduct of those against whom President George W. Bush has declared "a new kind of war."

Was the Jackson appearance at my son's school the most egregious incident of "suspending" religious liberty? Probably not, but it was certainly an incident that didn't need to happen, or that should properly have been the subject of an immediate apology.

On Capitol Hill, I was initially pleased by Congress' prudence in responding to the attack, and I publicly praised them for it. It appears I spoke too soon. On Oct. 16, the House by a 404-0 vote passed a non-binding resolution encouraging public schools to post "God Bless America" on their marquees. (Ironically, the next day, House members' faith apparently weakened as they fled the city from the anthrax fear, even though no contamination had been found on their end of the Capitol.)

I told the Associated Press I was disappointed that the House had devoted time and attention to a resolution like this when the country faces critical issues of national security such as bioterrorism and airline safety.

Regrettably, local elected officials also joined the fray. The city council of Ringgold, Ga., voted to erect a display of a framed Ten Commandments, a framed Lord's Prayer and an empty frame for what its sponsor called "people who believe in nothing." Hilarious. When a reporter asked sponsor Bill McMillon if this could be viewed as somewhat offensive to religious minorities including Muslims, he replied that "we don't have any of them here." With this kind of reception, don't expect the next town doctor, schoolteacher, or firefighter to be one, either.

Tom Paine.com, an Internet news site, took out an advertisement in The New York Times a few days after the Jerry Falwell/Pat Robertson "we got what we deserved" show that labeled the two television preachers as "The American Taliban." At first, even I thought the analogy a bit of a stretch. When all is said and done, however, America's Religious Right and its political allies would indeed implement many of the same things if they got what they want: control of moral decision-making; control of the courts; control over what is and is not taught in schools; a second-class status for women; and special privileges for the "best" religion. And, of course, near the top of the list would be the complete removal of the wall that separates religion and government.

Serge Schmemann, in an op-ed essay in The New York Times a few days after the attack, wrote these sobering words: "The terrorists who organized and carried out the attack issued no demands, no ultimatums. They did it solely out of grievance and hatred hatred for the values cherished in the West as freedom, tolerance, prosperity, religious pluralism, and universal suffrage, but abhorred by religious fundamentalists (and not only Islamic fundamentalists) as licentiousness, corruption, greed and apostasy."

That really is the point of our work against American fundamentalist extremists: we do not want to silence them, but we certainly want to stop their concerted efforts to take their theology and convert it into the secular law of the land.

Pat Robertson has also voiced the sentiment since Sept. 11 that the nation should "brush aside all the yapping people who make so much noise about separation of church and state." This is a prayer of his that I do hope goes unanswered. In fact, all readers who are proud of the "yapping" they have been doing so far, may find it the time to let the big dogs out.

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