Church-state at issue in legislature

BY KIT WAGAR, SPECIAL TO THE JEWISH LIGHT

Few people noticed when a freshman state representative from a tiny county on the Arkansas line introduced a resolution supporting prayer in public schools and religious displays on public property.

Such resolutions, conveying the sense of the General Assembly, carry no force of law and often involve charitable causes or fringe political issues.

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But the House Rules Committee unexpectedly approved the resolution Feb. 15. And when it was placed on the House calendar for debate two weeks later, an obscure resolution suddenly mattered.

The resolution’s touting of “a Christian God” whose teachings formed “the founding principles of our nation” seemed to many people to tread dangerously close to a government endorsement of religion.

To Karen Aroesty, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Missouri and southern Illinois, the House’s willingness to entertain the resolution raises disturbing questions about lawmakers’ commitment to basic freedoms.

“The democratic process is about recognizing minority views and the ability to find accommodation,” Aroesty said. “With fundamentalism, everything is black and white. There is no room for accommodation. Theirs is the only position that matters and others be damned.”

The resolution has drawn criticism from Jewish organizations and left Christian groups divided.

The controversy involves a resolution sponsored by Rep. David Sater, a Republican from Cassville in southwestern Missouri. The measure starts out asserting that the nation’s forefathers recognized a Christian God.

“As citizens of this great nation, we the majority also wish to exercise our constitutional right to acknowledge our Creator…,” the resolution continues. “As elected officials we should protect the majority’s right to express their religious beliefs while showing respect for those who object.”

Therefore, the resolution says, “we stand with the majority of our constituents and exercise the common sense that voluntary prayer in public schools and religious displays on public property are not a coalition of church and state, but rather the justified recognition of the positive roles that Christianity has played in this great nation.”

All five Republicans on the Rules Committee voted to approve the resolution and send it to the House floor. The three Democrats opposed it.

Sater, a pharmacist and member of First Baptist Church of Cassville, said his only goal was to honor the positive role that Christianity played with the nation’s Founding Fathers.

“The majority of our forefathers were Christian,” Sater said. “They used the Ten Commandments to form the foundation of this nation.”

He was supported by evangelical groups. David Clippard, executive director of the Missouri Baptist Convention, said the resolution merely affirms Christianity’s predominant role in shaping the United States.

Clippard said he could understand Jewish concerns, but said they are unfounded. True evangelical Christianity, he said, will always support Judaism and the State of Israel.

But other Christian organizations criticized the measure. Larry Weber, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, said the God that Christians worship is the God of Abraham – the same God worshipped by Jews and Muslims.

“From the Catholic point of view, to recognize ‘one Christian God’ is almost heretical,” Weber said. “There is no ‘one Christian God.’ There is one God, period.”

The Interfaith Partnership, representing the Baha’i, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian faiths, adopted a statement opposing Sater’s resolution.

“The Christian members of the Interfaith Partnership would like to express that we do not need the government to defend or promote our faith,” the statement said.

Batya Abramson-Goldstein, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said she was encouraged by the opposition from many in the Christian community. The opinions expressed in the resolution must be challenged lest they gain validity, she said.

“Representative Sater has every right to express his opinion,” Abramson-Goldstein said. “But it’s a completely different situation to have the people’s House speaking out in support of one religion.”

Several critics questioned Sater’s premise, noting that the American colonies were founded by people fleeing religious tyranny. The founding fathers, sensitive to the divisive nature of competing religious doctrines, were most concerned about keeping government and religion separate, they said.

Matt Coen, president of the St. Louis chapter of the American Jewish Committee, said the guiding principle in the United States for 230 years has been to allow people to practice their faith as they see fit. That idea not only protects minority faiths, but also protects the tremendous diversity among Christian beliefs, he said.

Coen asked how Sater could determine whom to include in the majority faith. The Missouri Baptist Convention calls itself the second-largest denomination in Missouri after Roman Catholics. But the Baptists represent only slightly more than 1 in every 10 Missourians.

The idea that elected officials need to “protect the majority’s right to express their religious beliefs” while “showing respect for those who object,” is particularly vexing, critics said.

No one objects to Christianity, Aroesty said. The words create an us-versus-them dynamic and put anyone who doesn’t agree with the resolution’s sponsor on the outside, she said. The resolution also begs the questions: Aren’t elected officials supposed to represent all their constituents? Or do they represent just the Christian ones?

Sater was asked about the propriety of asking a legislature that includes lawmakers who are Jewish, Muslim and a variety of Christian denominations to approve a resolution acknowledging “a Christian God.”

Sater replied that he was sorry if anyone was offended by his resolution. He said he planned to offer a substitute resolution on the House floor and eliminate the word majority.

Critics, he said, were making more of the resolution that was there. Despite the wording about the need to protect the majority’s right to express religious beliefs, Sater said he was not concerned that fundamentalist Christians were having trouble exercising their beliefs. The resolution, he said, was not an attempt to further any conservative agenda.

“We have wonderful freedom of religion in this nation,” Sater said. “You can see how other nations treat minority religions and this country should never go there, and it won’t.”

The resolution comes amid several election-year legislative efforts to push conservative social issues. Bills have been introduced to make abortion a crime, to eliminate most sex education from public schools and to banish the phrase “Happy Holidays” from public buildings.

The latter bill would require cities, counties, state universities and public schools to “use the traditional name” of all recognized holidays. It comes in the wake of complaints by conservative Christians about President Bush sending greeting cards that wished recipients “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

Aroesty said Sater’s resolution is part of the same agenda. As a political tool, it is successful regardless of whether the resolution wins approval. Lawmakers who vote against it can be attacked as un-Christian. And the issue helps fund-raising efforts by making it appear that Christianity is under attack, she said.

Coen agreed, saying the controversy keeps issues about religion front and center.

“If you’re not worried that the left is trying to stomp out your ability to practice your religion,” Coen said, “you might start thinking about voting out Republicans who vote against Medicaid.”

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