Even a couple of years ago, if you’d asked me whether church-state separation was a serious issue facing this country, I’d have smugly told you of course not – this is basic American Government 101, right? I mean, everyone knows church is to stay out of government and vice versa, right?
Oh, brothers and sisters, my eyes have been opened over the past couple of years.
If, like me, you take it as given that those in government and schools know there’s supposed to be a boundary between public institutes and church, this post should be enlightening. If you already knew the boundary is being blatantly crossed at every turn…this post will probably be infuriating (it was for me, writing it).
Theocracy in Action
To preface this post, let me tell you about a couple of cases that help to illustrate why church/state separation is so important (also, they show why ruling via majority is a bad idea and why our Founders specifically set up the government to protect against it).
Fundamentalist Mormons take over. It…doesn’t go well.
First up: Colorado City, Arizona and Hilldale, Utah (it’s a theocratic twofer!). See, in these two towns, the majority of residents belonged to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — otherwise known as “the scary Mormons.”
Now, I’ve actually heard Christians use the logic that, if the majority of people in a county/state/insert region here are Christian, then it shouldn’t be a problem for government institutions to display the 10 Commandments, or have a prayer before meetings, or for schools to have a prayer to start the day. But, as you’ll see in a moment, majority rule can go seriously off the rails.
You see, if you happened to not be a Mormon in Colorado City, AZ or Hilldale, UT, you could and were denied basic services like water or, I dunno, POLICE PROTECTION.
According to the Washington Post, one non-Mormon was denied a connection to city water and was forced to carry water to her home (and waste/sewage away from it) FOR SIX YEARS.
Another man left the church and promptly started having his property vandalized…and police completely ignored his complaints. Police in the two towns also turned a blind eye to adult men in the church marrying underage girls. Government officials appointed people to government jobs based on who the church told them to hire.
This is clearly theocratic rule, and against the Establishment Clause of the Constitution – which is what the jury ruled when the case went to trial. And, in a refrain you’ll hear almost every time a group of believers is prevented from breaking the damned law, lawyers for the two towns claimed the government was restricting residents’ religious freedom by prosecuting the case in the first place.
Pull the other one.
Muslim majority council gives Christians the vapors.
I’ll admit it: When I first heard the headline for this story, I thought it was going to be yet another case of the anti-Muslim rhetoric that’s become all too common in this country. But then I read the details…and actually sided with the Christians.
You see, Hamtramck, Michigan is (demographers believe) the first place in the U.S. to have a city council with a Muslim majority. It’s also the first city with a Muslim majority population. And, as religious folk do when they get into positions of power, the Muslim majority started legislating based on their religion, rather than the good of all of the community’s residents.
The most notable change was allowing the Islamic Center to blast calls to prayer five times a day from speakers on its roof. The first of these calls is at 6 a.m. – and let’s be honest: I’d be PISSED if something woke me up at 6 every freaking morning.
Of course, there are other issues — for one thing, no business within 500 feet of a mosque can have a liquor license. And one mosque was able to buy a neighboring building with the intent to build a minaret to broadcast the calls to prayer. This understandably upset some city leaders, since the building was in an area that’s important for commercial growth.
These are just a couple of illustrations of how governing according to a religious majority can cause serious problems for nonbelievers or other faiths. Now let’s look at how Christians are trying to do the same damn thing by encroaching on the public sphere, all over the country.
Church-State Separation, Schmurch-Schtate Separation
Even reasonable people, who otherwise agree that religion should not take over the government, tend to not apply that church-state separation logic to schools. “Let’s put God back in our schools!” is an all-too-common refrain. But whose god? We’ve already seen what a non-Christian religious majority can do when it takes over control of government; what if it were to happen on a school board? Would everyone be cool with adding prayer rugs and Korans to public schools?
This week, let’s take a look at how church-state separation is being flouted or ignored in schools:
‘B’ is for ‘Fuck the Constitution, let’s preach from the Bible in school!’
I went to high school in northern Iowa. My area is very Christian. And yet, I only remember one time where a teacher said something religious – my ag teacher (yes, agriculture – this is Iowa we’re talking about) was railing against people saying “God damn…” I remember him holding up a dollar bill and saying, “When you say ‘God damn dollar,’ you’re asking God to damn that dollar. Does that make any sense?”
No. No, Mr. Ag, you are more correct than you know – that makes no God damn sense at all.
The class thought the whole conversation was pretty kooky – probably because we didn’t have an overtly Christian culture in our school. It was school, not church.
It seems that I had a far different school experience from many other kids…or maybe the religious push has just become more fervent in recent years. Here are several cases in point:
1. Coaches praying with students at basketball games. This is all too common. I found examples from Illinois, Washington (this one was very high-profile due to the school district putting the coach on leave), Kentucky (is this one really a surprise?), and Michigan, to name just a few.
Teacher-led prayer was declared unconstitutional all the way back in 1963. If students want to pray before a game, fine – but the coach must not participate in, encourage, or promote the activity. Doing so puts undue pressure on non-religious teammates who may already be feeling like outsiders when the rest of their team takes a knee.
2. Idaho bill allowing the Bible to be used as a reference in schools. Originally, this bill would have allowed teachers to use the Bible as a reference in “literature, comparative religion, English and foreign languages, United States and world history, comparative government, law, philosophy, ethics, astronomy, biology, geology, world geography, archaeology, music, sociology, and other topics of study.”
Some state legislators pointed out that teachers can already use the Bible as a reference in courses like literature and comparative religion. The bill was eventually amended to say “religious texts, including the Bible” can be used – and the hard sciences were taken out of the bill altogether.
Maybe someone finally realized that the Bible is not the best reference for astronomy or biology, unless you’re talking about how wrong ancient people were about these subjects?
3. Chino Valley school board defies federal judge to continue praying at meetings. While this one doesn’t involve shoving religion at students, it does involve school board members turning meetings into a full-blown church service. They even invited a pastor to open their
prayer circles meetings.
Board members and pastors insist that this is a free speech issue — but as a public office, the school board is not allowed to promote religion. Not that trifling things like the law will stop them – the board has vowed to appeal the ruling and continue turning their meetings into revival events.
I’ll cover church-state violations more in later posts, but I’ll end here before you’re forced to read an entire novel on the subject.