Line? What Line?
Separation of Church and State Issues Flare Up
By Glenn Weiser
Metroland, June 24, 2004

This story is a combination of my original draft and the edited  version printed by Metroland. - GW

"I think it is very important for people who are serving [in public office] to make sure there is a separation of church and state," President Bush, said at a June 15 press conference. But after a month of wrangling in Congress and at the Supreme Court over the roles of religion in public life and politics in the pulpit, many are questioning both the president's sincerity on the issue how well some public servants understand what separation of church and state entails.

      On June 3, the Bush campaign made headlines when an email seeking to enlist the support of 1,600 "friendly" church groups across the country in distributing its campaign literature and registering voters came to light. Although candidates of both parties often appear before congregations during election seasons, federal tax laws prohibit overt political endorsements by houses of worship, which are tax-exempt. Defending the White House's move, presidential spokesman Steve Schmidt was quoted by the New York Times as saying, "people of faith have as much right to participate in the political process as any other community."
      Critics disagreed. "This is the most shocking example of politicizing churches I've ever seen," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of the watchdog group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and added. "By enrolling churches in an election scheme, the Bush campaign is endangering those churches' tax exemptions."
      Representative Bill Thomas (R-California), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, undoubtedly knew this when he introduced a provision the following week making it easier for religious groups to back political candidates, called Safe Harbor for Churches, to a larger bill dealing with corporate taxes. The measure would have significantly eased tax penalties for churches making one or two intentional political endorsements of candidates per year, and allowed up to three "unintentional" endorsements per year. Conveniently, the provision did not bother to define what an unintentional endorsement would be. This in theory could have allowed a preacher to evade IRS sanctions by claiming that the Devil had made him urge Sunday worshippers to vote for George W. Bush.
      Advocates of church-state separation again cried foul. Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United, commented in an email message that the measure was "a backdoor attempt to legalize the politicization of houses of worship." In response to such critics, Schmidt reiterated the president's view and called the group's position "extreme". The full House Ways and Means Committee bowed to the barrage of protest Safe Harbor for Churches had drawn and voted unanimously to delete the measure.
      Meanwhile, on June 8th, the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights, invited Alabama's "Commandments Judge" Roy Moore to testify at a hearing on alleged hostility toward religion in America. Moore, who had been removed from his position as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for refusing to follow a federal court order to remove a monument depicting the Ten Commandments from his Montgomery courthouse, urged Congress to pass a bill before the Senate sponsored by Sen. Richard C. Shelby, (R-Alabama), Shelby's bill would strip the Supreme Court and district courts of their power to decide cases against federal, state or local government officers for proclaiming God as the sovereign source of law, liberty or government. "Roy Moore showed blatant and utter disrespect for the Constitution of the United States and the rule of law," responded Lynn. "The ongoing attempts by some legislators to lionize Moore's lawbreaking is an embarrassment to the nation."
The premise that the nation is hostile to religion is also questionable - according to a recent Fox News poll, 92 percent of Americans say they believe in God, 85 percent in heaven, and 82 percent in miracles.
       The debate over of expressions of faith in public continued on June 14th, when the Supreme Court in an 8 - 0 decision declined to rule on whether the phrase "under God" should be stricken from the Pledge of Allegiance. The petitioner, Dr. Michael A. Newdow, an atheist father of a San Francisco kindergarten student, contended that reciting the pledge was a religious exercise in violation of the separation of church and state. To complicate the matter, Newdow and his daughter's mother, Sandra Banning, are not married and live apart, and a California court has awarded the right to decide the child's education to her mother, a Christian who wants the girl to recite the pledge with the "under God" phrase. Citing this, the court ruled that Newdow lacked standing to sue, leaving the matter of the pledge undecided, though three justices made it clear they thought nothing was wrong with the phrase. Critics accused the court of ducking the issue, and held that a lower court had affirmed Newdow's standing when it ruled in his favor. It was likely, observers on all sides said, that the justices would be hearing a similar case in the future.

List of Metroland Stories by Glenn Weiser                     Copyright 2004 Glenn Weiser. All rights reserved.


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