Honk If You Support The Separation Of Church And State

by Barry W. Lynn

Traveling down McGavock Pike in Nashville Aug. 14, I happened to spot a young woman standing across the street from the Two Rivers Baptist Church. She was holding a sign that read, “Honk If You Support the Separation of Church and State.” I was pleased to hear many passing drivers doing just that.

Why all the honking at Two Rivers? Inside the church, the intelligentsia of the Religious Right was holding “Justice Sunday II,” an effort to “save” the nation from activist liberal judges (and by extension put Judge John G. Roberts on the Supreme Court). This woman was standing in a line of other demonstrators from the National Organization for Women and the progressive religious community whom I joined that day.

When I strolled up to say I liked her sign, I was surprised to learn that she had expected to be alone. She had been unaware of the planned protest.

“I just came because I thought somebody had to show people there was another side,” she said.

That’s a comment from the heart. As I went down the row, the folks who knew they were coming to a planned event also spoke from the heart. There was the woman who had a picture of her grandmother who had died from a botched illegal abortion. Another woman told me she’d been watching me for “a hundred years on television” but has not seen me lately. She said she got rid of her set because she finds the news too discouraging.

I had spent the previous hours as a participant at a religious gathering designed to present a more respectful alternative view of the courts than the vilification heard at Two Rivers. The “Community of Faith and Unity” event was at the Cathedral of Praise, a predominantly African-American Pentecostal church on the other side of the river. There were a dozen powerful speakers – and some awfully good gospel music.

Bishop Joseph Warren Walker III of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church talked about the narrow understanding of the biblical literalists across town. He said he was tired of them trying to “pimp morality for political gain.” Prime evidence for him was how the Right had used same-sex marriage as a wedge issue to get votes during the last election.

“Now, has anybody been talking about it since?” he asked, to a chorus of amens.

Speakers like the Rev. Emilee Whitehurst, head of the Austin Area Interreligious Ministries, a person I’d put in the category of rising star in a new generation of progressive church-state separation leaders, spoke with eloquence about the need to recognize the great diversity of religious opinion in the country and to protect the legal rights of believers and non-believers alike.

When I spoke, it was primarily to defend the extraordinary significance of an independent judiciary, beholden to no powerful groups, including religious ones that would use theology instead of the Constitution to shape the law. I’m particularly incensed when people like Tom DeLay and James Dobson, both “stars” of “Justice Sunday II,” use phrases like “unelected black-robed judges” as a kind of curse and a mark of shame.

The view I expressed at the Cathedral event was through a different prism: “It was those black-robed judges,” I said, “who stopped the men in white sheets — and the politicians who supported their goals — from stopping the advance of educational and voting rights for all Americans. It was those in black robes who allowed parents to decide what, if any, religious education they will give their children, and told the state it could not compel those children to follow some official religion the government chose to enforce.”

As often happens with these events, I was honored to be asked to comment further for news outlets like National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition,” MSNBC’s “Connected Coast to Coast” co-hosted by Ron Reagan and Monica Crowley and Air America’s “Al Franken Show.” I get pretty passionate on those programs, but the passion is usually a reflection of the kind of comments I hear from our supporters.

I’m proud that Americans United was one of the very first groups to oppose the nomination of Roberts to the high court. When we learned that he appeared to have a paper trail of his legal handiwork that included support for prayer at public school events, giving religious institutions government benefits but then lifting otherwise applicable laws for them and support for “court stripping,” removing jurisdiction from federal courts to hear church-state cases and other socially contentious controversies, how could we not oppose him? His stand is antithetical to everything you and I stand for.

Nobody is arguing that Roberts is the worst person in the world, or that he has done everything wrong in his entire life. (Although when I said to Al Franken, “He’s probably even nice to animals,” Al quipped back, “Well, I’ve heard some rumors.…”)

Some have criticized Roberts for “forgetting” that he had been an advisor to the Federalist Society. I’m not too concerned about that. I’m worried that he has forgotten that the Supreme Court, in interpreting the Bill of Rights, has often proven to be the last defender of the civil and religious rights of all of us. That’s the lack of “recall” that disqualifies him for a lifelong tenure on our nation’s highest court.

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