Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Program for 2012 Spring Dialogue

Oklahoma City Chapter
 Americans United for Separation of Church & State
Spring Dialogue
Saturday, April 28, 2012, 10:30 am to 1:30 pm
Midwest City Public Library Forum Room, 8143 E. Reno

10:30 – Welcome and Introduction by Sophia Hernandez, chapter vice-president
10:45 – 11:15 -- Dr. John Starkey, Milhouse Professor of Theology, Oklahoma City University, "Personhood, Pluralism, and the First Amendment: The Test case of Abortion"
11:15 – 11:30 -- Questions for Dr. Starkey

11:30 – 11:55 -- Break for refreshments and opportunity for Ms. Stewart’s book purchase

12:00 – 12:20 -- Professor Joseph Thai, Presidential Professor of Law, University of Oklahoma,  “An insider's view:  How the Supreme Court and Tenth Circuit Court Decide Cases”
12:20 – 12:30 -- Questions for Prof. Thai

12:30 -1:10 Keynote:  Katherine Stewart, author, “The Good News Club”, “Breaking Down the Wall of Separation Between Church and School: Author Katherine Stewart discusses a range of initiatives, by the Religious Right, to infiltrate and undermine public schools in America”
1:10 – 1:25 -- Questions for Ms. Stewart
1:25 – 1:30 -- Closing remarks

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947; the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

A question and answer period will be held following the speaker’s presentations. Light refreshments will be served. This event is free and open to the public.

For more information about the Oklahoma City Chapter of Americans for Separation of Church & State, please visit the Oklahoma City chapter website at, contact James Nimmo at 405-843-3651, or the national AU website at .

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

5 Supreme Court Decisions Pandering to Christianity

5 Supreme Court Decisions Pandering to Christianity

By Rob Boston, AlterNet

Posted on April 24, 2012, Printed on April 24, 2012

In theory, the Supreme Court is where Americans turn to protect their rights when all else fails. The high court is supposed to be beyond the reach of politics, and more importantly, beyond the reach of popular will. After all, just because many Americans want something doesn’t mean it’s constitutional.

This is true especially in matters of religion. Despite what many Americans believe, the majority does not rule when it comes to religion. Core freedoms depend on no vote. Most people in your town may sincerely believe that compelling students to say Christian prayers or learn creationism in public schools is a desirable – but that doesn’t make it legal.

In the main, the Supreme Court has done a pretty good job of upholding the separation of church and state. The high court has put the brakes on mandatory religious worship in public schools and barred direct tax support of sectarian enterprises.
But the court has made a few missteps along the way. That’s inevitable because as much as we’d like to think that the court is not a political institution, presidents do use the power of appointment to shape the bench, beyond their own terms in office.

Here are five cases where the Supreme Court dropped the ball on separation of church and state.

1. Holy Trinity Church v. United States (1892): Congress, in one of its periodic waves of anti-immigrant delirium, passed a law placing restrictions on the ability of American firms to hire laborers from overseas. Holy Trinity Church in New York, which had contracted with a minister in England to be its pastor, was accused of violating the law.

The Supreme Court ruled for the church. Justice David Brewer asserted that the law was intended to apply to manual laborers, not other types of workers. A minister, the court wrote, was a “toiler of the brain” and thus exempt from the act.

Unfortunately, Brewer did not stop there. He went off on a tangent and started compiling evidence of the religious nature of the American people. Brewer concluded, “These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation.”

Brewer’s diatribe is considered dicta, a legal term meaning writing not directly relevant to the case. But the damage was done. Holy Trinity has never been cited in the modern era and established no precedent in church-state relations, but it gave ammunition to Religious Right activists who still cite it today as proof that America is a “Christian nation.”

2. Zorach v. Clauson (1952): In a 1947 case called McCollum v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court struck down an Illinois law that allowed religious instructors to enter public schools during the day for “voluntary” worship and theological instruction.

In response, proponents of the idea tweaked the plan and came up with an idea whereby students would leave school during the day for religious instruction offsite. They called it “released time.” In 1952, the Supreme Court upheld released time on a 6-3 vote.

That was bad enough. For some reason, Justice William O. Douglas decided to expound on the religiosity of America. “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being,” Douglas wrote. He later added, “When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities, it follows the best of our traditions.”

Douglas’ endorsement of symbolic union between church and state has been seized on by Religious Right advocates who have used it to justify official prayer in public schools and other schemes. Luckily, the Supreme Court has never fully embraced this line of argument. However, the Douglas passage has been used to buttress various forms of “civil religion” over the years.

Douglas may have realized his mistake. He went on to become one of the high court’s strongest advocates for separation of church and state. As for released time, while in some parts of the country it’s popular (especially Utah where the Mormons have fine-tuned it to an art form), by and large it never really caught on.

3. McGowan v. Maryland (1961): Many states used to have laws regulating what stores could sell on Sunday. In 1961, two challenges to these “blue laws” reached the Supreme Court, one from Pennsylvania and one from Maryland.

Blue laws had never made much sense. Some commerce on Sunday is inevitable. Medicine and other health-related items could be sold, for example, as could Sunday newspapers, gas for cars and so on.

In Maryland, the law limited Sunday sales to food, medicine, gasoline and newspapers. Opponents argued that limiting sales on Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, violated church-state separation. They noted that blue laws were a throwback to the Puritan era.

Remarkably, the Supreme Court in McGowan disagreed. In an 8-1 ruling, the high court lamely asserted that blue laws, though they indeed originally had a religious purpose, had become secularized over the years. Their only purpose now, the court declared, was to provide a “day of rest” for weary retail workers. (Of course, many retail workers weren’t getting the day off. Lots of stores were open; they were just restricted in what they could sell.)

But even the court’s poor logic couldn’t save blue laws. The public wanted to shop on Sunday, and stores owners, eager for the extra profits, lobbied for change. Most states were only too happy to comply because they didn’t want to lose tax revenues to neighboring states that allowed Sunday shopping.

Blue laws began to fall. An echo of them still exists in some states where the sale of liquor is curtailed on Sunday or certain stores, such as auto dealerships, are closed.

4. Marsh v. Chambers (1983): If you’ve ever wondered why the House of Representatives, Senate and many state legislative bodies open their deliberations with prayers you need look no further than a 1983 Supreme Court decision called Marsh v. Chambers.

In Marsh, a legislator in Nebraska’s unicameral legislature sued over the practice of paying a chaplain to recite daily prayers. On the surface, it looked like an easy case, since government was not only endorsing prayer but paying for it.

The Supreme Court, however, ruled 6-3 that Nebraska’s practice was constitutional. The justices, it seems, were wary of making the ruling that the First Amendment demands: that taxpayer-paid religious ministers do not square with separation of church and state.

The high court dodged precedent and instead asserted that government chaplains have a long history in the United States and are thus traditional. The majority pointed out that the first Continental Congress had appointed state-funded chaplains, and thus no constitutional violation was found.

The justices did not consider that perhaps the first Congress had got it wrong. After all, an early Congress passed a “Sedition Act” that punished newspaper editors for speaking ill of government officials – an obviously unconstitutional bill.

Justice William Brennan was not taken in. In his dissent, Brennan pointed out that founding father James Madison opposed state-funded legislative chaplains, concluded that the practice had been unconstitutional all along and was not saved by its long history. He argued that the first Congress had acted more out of political concerns than respect for the Constitution some of them had helped draft.

5. Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002): In some states, your tax dollars fund Roman Catholic, fundamentalist Protestant and other religious schools that are free to preach homophobia, “creation science,” sexism and other repugnant ideas through voucher programs. How did this happen in a nation where religion has traditionally paid its own way?

In a close 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court upheld Ohio’s voucher plan in the case Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was the swing vote. O’Connor bought voucher advocates’ argument that the religious school aid scheme was merely one “choice” among others. Of course, the other choices were illusionary; they amounted to going back to public school or being tutored.

Thanks to the Simmons-Harris ruling, more states are implementing voucher programs, siphoning money away from public schools during a time when tax funding for education is already being slashed. To make matters worse, states almost never require oversight or accountability of religious schools that are awarded tax money. They simply cut the check and walk away.

The Dishonorable Mention: Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940): Jehovah’s Witness parents brought this challenge to a Pennsylvania law that required public school children to salute the flag every day. Witnesses, who believe in pledging allegiance only to God and not to any earthly symbol, protested. The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favor of the state. The flag salute, the high court asserted, was a mainly patriotic exercise necessary to foster national cohesion. “National unity is the basis of national security,” declared the court.

The fallout from the decision was severe. Across the nation, Witnesses were assaulted, forced to leave their homes and even jailed. Their children were expelled from public schools.

Gobitis fails to make the top five because it was short-lived. Three years later, the Supreme Court reversed it in the case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. The high court held that public schools could sponsor the flag pledge but that they must excuse dissenters. Observed the court, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

What can we learn from this list? Mainly that as much as we would like it to be otherwise, the Supreme Court can be a political institution. Today’s court is delicately balanced on church-state issues, and many recent church-state decisions have been 5-4 rulings.

The president appoints justices, who then face a Senate vote. Except in unusual cases, they are confirmed. High court justices serve for life and can long outlast the presidents who appoint them. (Remember, it was President Ronald Reagan who appointed Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court way back in 1986.) It’s something to keep in mind the next time you’re in the ballot box.

Rob Boston is the assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which publishes Church and State magazine.

© 2012 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Annual Spring Dialogue – April 28

For Immediate Release
OKC Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church & State
Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Contact: James Nimmo, Communications Chair, 405-843-3651

Americans United for Separation of Church & State
Annual Spring Dialogue – April 28

What: OKC Chapter of Americans United Spring Dialogue Event
When: Saturday, April 28, 2012, 10:30 am to 1:30 pm
Where: Midwest City Library Forum Room, 8143 E. Reno, Oklahoma City
Who: OKC Chapter of Americans United for Church & State and the public

Link to map for Midwest City Library

OKLAHOMA CITY - On Saturday, April 28, 2012, the Oklahoma City Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church & State will host its annual Spring Dialogue. The event will begin at 10:30 a.m. in the Midwest City Library Forum Room, 8143 E. Reno, and will conclude at 1:30 p.m.

Interested citizens who support or want to know more about the importance of the First Amendment and the wall of separation between religious dogma and civil laws are encouraged to attend.

"Our AU chapter looks forward to presenting speakers who can provide an interesting inside look at important issues concerning the First Amendment support of separation of religious views from civil laws,” said OK-AU Communications Chair, James NImmo. "The United States supports hundreds, if not thousands, of religious denominations. Not a single one of them can be allowed to gain political strength over any other denomination."

The program will include three community leaders who will discuss important aspects of First Amendment issues commonly making headlines in the daily news.

Keynote speaker will be Katherine Stewart, author of the book ‘The Good News Club: The Christian Right's Stealth Assault on America's Children.” In 2009, the Good News Club came to the public elementary school where journalist Katherine Stewart sent her children. The Club, which is sponsored by the Child Evangelism Fellowship, bills itself as an after-school program of “Bible study.”

Stewart discovered that the Club’s real mission is to convert children to fundamentalist Christianity, while promoting the false impression among the children that the school endorses its activities. She was astonished to learn that the U.S. Supreme Court has deemed this and other forms of religious activity in public schools to be legal. Stewart then began an investigative journey to dozens of communities across the nation to document the impact. In this book, she demonstrates that there is more religion in America’s public schools today than there has been for the past 100 years

Born in Boston, Massachusetts. Stewart started her journalism career working for investigative reporter Wayne Barrett at The Village Voice and freelanced for Newsweek International, Rolling Stone, Marie Claire and others. She co-wrote the book about the musical Rent and published two novels about 21st century parenting. She has written for The New York Times, Reuters, the Daily Beast, Bloomberg View, and Religion Dispatches.

Professor Joseph Thai teaches Supreme Court decision-making, First Amendment, criminal procedure, and criminal law at the University of Oklahoma. Professor Thai joined the law faculty in 2003 and has served as law clerk to Justice John Paul Stevens and Justice Byron White of the Supreme Court, as well as Judge David Ebel of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Prior to joining the law faculty, Thai practiced in the Office of the Attorney General in Massachusetts and Gable Gotwals Law Firm in Oklahoma. He engages in pro bono litigation on constitutional matters and is working on a law school textbook on the Supreme Court and a judicial biography of Justice Stevens. He also co-created and runs Crimprof Multipedia, an online multimedia teaching resource for criminal law and procedure professors worldwide.

Dr. John Starkey is a Professor of Theology at Oklahoma City University. He will be speaking on the topic “Personhood, Pluralism, and the First Amendment: The Test case of Abortion.” He became a Millhouse Professor of Theology in 2001, and received a Bachelor of Arts from Fordham University; a Masters of Theological Studies from Weston School of Theology; and a Ph.D., from Boston University. In 2006, Starkey was the winner of Oklahoma City University’s Outstanding Faculty Award for Teaching, Scholarship, and Service.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947; the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

A question and answer period will be held following the speaker’s presentations. Light refreshments will be served. This event is free and open to the public.

For more information about the Oklahoma City Chapter of Americans for Separation of Church & State or the Spring Dialogue event, please visit or contact James Nimmo at 405-843-3651.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Insistent candidates should be quizzed on religious beliefs
clip As I’ve written in the past, a stopping point for fundamentalists may come when their beliefs and documents, such as the Bible or, say, the Book of Mormon, are carefully vetted and scrutinized. As Christian fundamentalists continue to work disingenuously and incrementally to turn the nation into a theocracy, their religion and worldview should become a major interest for everyone.

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, for example, was challenged recently at a rally by someone who questioned whether he believed in racist language contained in the Book of Mormon. Romney essentially avoided a direct answer, but later in the rally he did talk about serving as a Mormon pastor for 10 years.

Obviously, a former pastor running for president, who makes his religion a major part of his campaign, deserves to have his beliefs vetted and scrutinized. In fact, all the presidential candidates, including Barack Obama, should be asked hard questions about their religious beliefs given the current political landscape throughout the country. Do they believe in literal interpretations of the Bible’s Old Testament, for example, which condones slavery and female oppression?

As long as right-wing fundamentalists insist on theocracy, no political candidate should be allowed privacy when it comes to religious views.

Given the fundamentalists' push to inscribe their beliefs as science or as government policy, one has to wonder about the point of “faith” or the point of metaphorical readings of the Bible. Ultimately, the fundamentalists damage the credibility and viability of Christianity. Once that becomes clear to more moderate religious folks over the long term, there will be a correction. But, for now, the fight against religious zealotry continues in places like Oklahoma.