By Donna Lee Schillinger
If this hadn’t been a second article in a series, I should have rather titled this “How We Really Lost Religious Liberties.” You see, most people believe that key battles in the Supreme Court, championed by atheist liberals, have eroded religious liberties in the United States. However, I believe that Christians are probably more to blame for our battle losses. And on the white flag of surrender has been written, “Separation of church and state.”
Before I go further, I must pay tribute to those real Christian soldiers who left it all out on the battlefield – those who have taken the fight to the highest court in the land, sacrificing countless hours, prayers and dollars before relinquishing even a sliver of religious liberty. It’s true, landmark court cases have restricted our liberties in how and when we are able to worship and even mention God in the public sphere. And yet they haven’t restricted us as much as many Christians seem to believe. After all, court decisions don’t create law; they create precedence for future cases.
The courts’ edicts are often very specific, with rationale quite specific to the circumstances of the case. For example, in Leei v. Weisman (1992) the Supreme Court found that it was unconstitutional that a certain high school prayed during its graduation ceremonies, and given the same parameters of the case, such a prayer would be unconstitutional in any high school graduation. The decision, however, did not make it illegal to pray at graduation. Students can plan their own commencement with a prayer, and any graduation speaker can spontaneously pray without being shepherd-crooked off the stage! (Learn more.) this But in order to pray at graduation now, a greater deal of courage and conviction is required, and that, I recently learned, is easier preached than practiced.
My son attends a preschool called His Little Lambs; it’s privately owned but receives 60 percent of its total income from a state program called Arkansas Better Chance (ABC). In January of this year, the owner informed me that she had received a memo from the state program saying all religious activity needed to stop. A proposed rule was now prohibiting “all religious activity” during the program day. This meant, among other things, that the community volunteer who came in once a week to tell the children Bible stories would have to cease this activity. And she did – immediately. Six months later, the rule is still proposed, but it was interesting to me how quickly the mere threat of a new rule could shut down a Christian witness.
The state board of education held a public comment meeting and I attended. Only two people (me and one preschool owner) commented in opposition to the rule; no one commented in favor of it. That’s probably because no one in Arkansas was in favor of it. The complaint that prompted the proposed rule came from a Washington, D.C.-based special interest group, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. It’s not surprising that smack dab in the middle of the Bible belt, people who take their kids to such preschools as Growing God’s Children and His Little Lambs didn’t object to the possibility that the kids might be soaking up some Christian values during the day.
What is surprising is that smack dab in the middle of the Bible belt, cinched around a country that is 85 percent Christian, there wasn’t that much opposition to the rule either! Throughout the month-long written comment period, my eyes were opened as I tried to get people to care about the fact that the government was about to impose a “no religion” rule on private preschools throughout the state, essentially insulating our kids from the gospel message we’re wanting them to receive when we select a Christian preschool. Over and over I heard the resignation, “Well, it’s separation of church and state.”
Memo to America: First of all, that phrase is not in the constitution, Bill of Rights or any other law of the land. Secondly, the First Amendment from which that phrase evolved has two provisos: one that prohibits government from establishing religion, and one that insures religious freedom. Glass half-empty types that we are, most people focus on the first proviso and tend to ignore the other. Disabled by this kind of pessimism, many a “God-fearing” Christian has stood back, stood still, or worse, while our religious liberties disappeared one decision at a time.
We tend to focus on the landmark cases, but the real ground is being lost in the board room. Coincidentally, while the parents of His Little Lambs were rallying against the proposed ABC rule (on which the state board of education has not yet ruled), another local organization, the day program for persons with developmental disabilities, was giving up religious liberty without any fight, and in fact, of their own volition. This board, made up entirely of professing Christians, just up and decided that they had better safe-guard themselves against possible litigation (frankly, the odds of being struck by lightning were greater) and pass a resolution to make their program religion-free.
Clearly, this reflects an ignorance of the true meaning of separation of church and state. You won’t hear me say this very often, but to get a clue of how this separation thing is really supposed to work, look at our own government. Can you make a case for something being more public than our government? And yet they open each session of Congress in prayer. The next in line for the “most public entity” award is the military, which has chaplains on the payroll!
Having recently crawled out from under the same rock, I can completely understand how many Americans are confused about separation of church and state; but we don’t have to be and we remain so at our own peril. I highly recommend Founding Faith by Steven Waldman to both set straight the overzealous patriots who make erroneous claims about our founders’ faith, but more importantly, to inform the masses about what separation of church and state really means.
Many people are speculating that this election is critical for America in a number of ways, and some have ventured to say that if this candidate is elected, or that president is re-elected, it could be the beginning of the end of this country. Still others are wondering if God has removed His blessing from America. It’s amazing to me that some of these same people can be so complacent as our daily religious liberties wane; and that some can even take part, willingly and using their best judgment, in surrendering the liberties.
As I stated in Part I of this series, I am in favor of separation of church and state in the sense that James Madison conceived it: the state should never run the church and the church should never force itself on the people. I believe this to be a godly view. Clearly, God is not subject to human government, and it is not in His nature to force anyone to come to Him, believe in Him or love Him. However, the present-day distortion of “separation of church and state” cannot be pleasing to God. When persecuted Christians in this present age are dying before they deny the name of Christ, what excuse will we have for denying the gospel to our children and people with disabilities from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. because of the remote possibility that someone might sue? When the Apostles Peter and John were commanded by the Sanhedrin “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus,” did they go home and shut up, fearing legal repercussion? Did they call a meeting of the disciples and decide to avoid the public sphere with their message? No, they said instead, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
What about us? Have we seen and heard enough of this Jesus to speak boldly about Him, regardless of what the authorities might do to us? Or are we secretly kind of grateful to have a wall between church and state to hide behind?
Donna Lee Schillinger is editor of the recent anthology Purity’s Big Payoff/Premarital Sex is a Big Rip-off, winner of the 2012 Christian Small Publisher’s Book of the Year. In 2008 she founded On My Own Now Ministries to encourage faith, wise life choices and Christ-likeness in young adults. On My Own Now publishes the free, monthly online magazines, Single! Young Christian Woman and Genuine Motivation: Young Christian Man.