POSTED ON JULY 28, 2010:
The Undivided Church and State
Government and religion have completely blurred the lines
In the Hot Seat. A group calling itself Reclaiming Oklahoma for Christ is being investigated for violating federal law by promoting a campaign rally for State Rep. Sally Kern, an Oklahoma City Republican.
The intersection of politics and religion can be a dangerous -- and costly -- place. Just ask the residents of Haskell County. Their county commissioners agreed to placement of a Ten Commandments monument on the courthouse lawn. A local resident sued, contending its presence on public property represented an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. Federal judges agreed and ordered its removal. Now county taxpayers are stuck with a legal judgment, all because their elected officials opted to use their positions for proselytizing rather than pothole repair. Haskell County isn't the first government entity in America to test the bounds of the principle of separation of church and state. And it most assuredly won't be the last -- especially in Oklahoma where some lawmakers are obsessed with the notion this is a Christian nation as opposed to a nation of religious freedom. It's difficult to imagine that erection later this year of a similar Ten Commandments monument on the state Capitol's north lawn -- the brainchild of state Rep. Mike Ritze, R-Broken Arrow -- won't be challenged in court. Or that elective Bible classes in public schools -- Democratic Sen. Tom Ivester of Elk City won legislative approval for it this year -- won't end up before a judge because a zealous instructor uses it as a platform to promote his or her particular religion or denomination. There is no question that faith -- or lack thereof -- informs our politics as individuals. It reflects our core principles and values, whether we believe in a higher power or not -- which is, of course, a fundamental right of choice that we enjoy individually as Americans. But it's dangerous when lawmakers, clergy and religious groups conspire to break down the wall that ensures each of us is free to worship in our own way. Look no further than theocratic states elsewhere in the world that are routinely scorned by our elected officials who seem oblivious to the fact that they're leading our state and nation down the same troubling path. What could one day be government-mandated Christianity -- whose brand? -- could another day be government-mandated Islam or Judaism or Buddhism or who knows what. Think it couldn't happen here? Don't be so sure. Religious crusades and conquests are a staple of world history. Which is all the more reason to protect our noble experiment -- the idea that people of different religions can live in proximity, in relative harmony, with respect to each other, all because we cherish the individual right to freedom of religious choice. Of course, such high-mindedness hasn't stopped those zealots determined to stamp out any religious thought but their own -- and institutionalize their religious tenets in American government, law and life. What's worse: They often use fear -- of other faiths or races or of homosexuality -- to browbeat others into embracing their narrow-minded view of America and its spirit of openness. Oklahoma was back in the news last week for just that very thing when a Washington, D.C.-based religious liberty watchdog formally asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate whether a group calling itself Reclaiming Oklahoma for Christ violated federal law by promoting a campaign rally for state Rep. Sally Kern. Kern, an Oklahoma City Republican, is perhaps best known for asserting in 2008 that homosexuality is a bigger "threat" to America than "terrorism or Islam." In the national firestorm that followed, Reclaiming Oklahoma for Christ publicly rallied behind Kern. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State charges the Oklahoma group -- founded by Paul Blair, a former Oklahoma State and Chicago Bears lineman who now pastors a Baptist church in Edmond -- distributed an e-mail last month that supported Kern's re-election and urged people to attend a campaign rally on her behalf. "Organizations like Reclaiming Oklahoma for Christ should not be permitted to make a mockery of our laws," said Bruce Prescott, a Baptist minister in Norman who also serves on the Americans United board of trustees. "Religion should never be politicized. It undermines the integrity of our houses of worship and is certain to divide congregations and communities." In an interview with an Oklahoma City newspaper, Blair denied any wrongdoing. But federal tax law is clear: Non-profit groups holding tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) status -- including many churches and religious organizations -- are prohibited from intervening in partisan campaigns by endorsing or opposing candidates. It's perfectly OK to discuss issues from the pulpit, urge parishioners to vote, conduct non-partisan voter registration, even sponsor non-partisan candidate forums. But it's illegal to endorse or oppose candidates from the pulpit or in voter guides, use church resources to do so, and contribute to candidates' campaigns. Pretty simple. But some religious leaders, like Blair, are purposely provoking legal fights, hoping to find the right court that will overturn the federal tax law ban on partisan politicking. It's worth noting, of course, that even the most conservative Supreme Court in my lifetime refused to hear the Haskell County case -- a point that seems lost on those so certain of the religious righteousness of their causes. This is a dangerous game. And those who insist on playing it are playing with fire. -- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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