Sherman Threatens Lawsuits
in Wisconsin to Stop
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists
July 20, 1997
Atheist activist Rob Sherman is moving to stop a campaign by the Christian Family Association which seeks to have government bodies display the Ten Commandments in all 72 county courthouses in Wisconsin. Thursday night, Sherman -- a resident of Illinois -- showed in at a public hearing in front of the Oconto County Board, and pointed out that displaying the Decalogue is a violation of the First Amendment separation of government and religion.
"The Christian Tyranny Association says non-Christians have no place in their America, but here in Oconto County, this is not the message that you want to send to your residents or tourists who want to visit," Mr. Sherman told the Supervisors. Following the meeting, he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other news sources that if the Oconto Board, or other government bodies proceeded to erect Ten Commandment postings, he would launch a legal challenge.
"If they want to have a very expensive holy war, which they will lose, they can go ahead with it," warned Sherman.
Sherman's move apparently has caught the Christian Family Association off guard; the group's regional director, Denni Pape, said he and his organization "were quite surprised that somebody took the opposition and took all that trouble to come in from Illinois."
The call for Decalogue display in government buildings is being promoted by CFA and its religious right allies in support of Etowah County, Alabama Judge Roy Moore. Moore's policy of posting a hard-carved plaque of the Commandments, and of opening his courtroom proceedings with a Baptist invocation, have been declared unconstitutional. Moore is appealing that ruling to the Alabama Supreme Court; but he has won backing from religious groups throughout the country including the Christian Coalition, and Gov. Fob James who has threatened to mobilize the state guard, police and the University of Alabama football squad in order to "resist" any federal order against Moore.
Sherman is no stranger to the state-church separation battle, or
Wisconsin. In 1992, he threatened a lawsuit and had the Wauwatosa Common
Council remove a cross which had been part of that community's seal since
1957. The U.S. Supreme Court has led stand a decision by the 7thg U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals that religious graffiti on city seals or emblems
violates standards for First Amendment state-church separation.
Judge Moore Named
Complaint Over Funds
Praying Judge Named in Ethics Complaint
by Conrad Goeringer with Barb Buttram and Larry Mundinger
from AANEWS by American Atheists
August 4, 1997
Judge Roy Moore, the Alabama jurist who has attracted national controversy for his practices of opening courtroom sessions with a prayer and posting a copy of the Ten Commandments above his dais, has been named in an ethics complaint focusing on travel expenses and contributions for his legal fees.
Associated Press is reporting that a man identified as "J. Lewis" lodged a complaint with the Alabama Ethics Commission on July 27, citing travel expenses Judge Moore has received and other monies which support his legal fight. Last November, Moore's courtroom prayer and Decalogue postings were ruled to be unconstitutional in two separate decisions. Moore has appealed those decisions, however, to the Alabama State Supreme Court; a ruling on that matter is not expected until October. The judge was named in a March, 1995 suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the Alabama Freethought Society, which argued that the prayer and Ten Commandments posting violated constitutional guarantees for state-church separation.
Moore argued that the free speech and exercise provisions of the First Amendment should permit him to practice religious rituals in his courtroom. But critics charged that the issue has nothing to do with freedom of expression, and instead is a discriminatory sanction in favor of religious belief and ritual in government.
Little Known About "J. Lewis"
Associated Press reports that Lewis provided no home address or phone number in the complaint to the Ethics Commission. It is not known if the name is a pseudonym, although there is a possible connection with the Decalogue. Freethought writer Joseph Lewis penned a number of seminal works, including an exhaustive 644-page work titled "The Ten Commandments," published in 1946 by the Freethought Press Association.
Even more intriguing was the statement from Lewis which claimed, "While I sympathize with Judge Moore's views, I am appalled by what appears to me to be a total lack of respect for the ethics law by Judge Moore and what amounts to the sin of hypocrisy."
Moore has attracted considerable media coverage and support from both local and national groups for his increasingly belligerent, defiant stand on courtroom religiosity. Alabama Governor Fob James, an unabashed supporter of the Etowah County jurist, has repeatedly threatened to mobilize the state guard, police and even the University of Alabama football squad to resist any "federal order" trying to end Moore's courtroom conjuring. In April, thousands of prayer supporters flocked to the front of the State Capitol building in Montgomery for a rally supporting Judge Moore and a number of related causes; and the Moore has become a bit of a national celebrity, traveling to Washington and elsewhere. In reaction to the Alabama prayer controversy, the U.S. House of Representatives even passed a non-binding resolution in favor of displaying the Ten Commandments in government venues.
Questionable Money Use?
According to Moore's legal team, nearly $100,000 has poured in thus far to support the judge's challenge against the earlier rulings. The bulk of the fund raising effort comes from Save Our Commandments, a coalition of religious and partitionist groups which spearheaded the April rally. Moore's supporters have also come under attack for selling kitsch replicas of the alleged Ten Commandments for prices ranging from $49.95 to $149.95.
The war over the First Amendment, though, has also sparked charges and
countercharges over issues like honorariums and inurement. Moore insists
that he has no direct involvement with the fund raising efforts on his
behalf, and has never accepted fees for speaking; in addition, he claims
that his trips were "educational," thus allowing him to accept
travel expenses. That flap has spilled over to Judge Charles Price, the
other county jurist who ruled against Moore in two separate cases examining
the Baptist invocation and the Decalogue posting in the courtroom. Price
recently won the prestigious John F. Kennedy Profiles in Courage Award,
which included a $25,000 honorarium. Moore and his backers quickly challenged
Price's right to keep the money, however, and the Ethics Commission concluded
that Judge Price must donate the money to charity.
Bill Of Rights Does Apply
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists
August 4, 1997
There have been plenty of peculiar events associated with Judge Roy Moore and his battle for public prayer and religiosity in Alabama; but one of the more bizarre aspects of this story involves Gov. Fob James, who in a recent 34-page document argued that, essentially, individuals states are exempt from a cumbersome federal document known as the Bill of Rights. James originally penned his remarks for U.S. District Judge Ira DeMent, who last March struck down Alabama's school prayer law.
James agreed with DeMent's ruling striking down the statute; like many in the state, the governor considered the legislation too weak in enforcing public prayer. He argued, though, that only a state court -- not a federal court -- had the proper jurisdiction to do so. James also challenged the legal authority of all U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
Last week, DeMent denied James' request to discard the school prayer case, saying that, "The governor's invitation to ignore the Supreme Court's interpretation of the 14th Amendment ... poses a serious threat to our system of democratic self-government."
James' argument is a simple rehash of earlier "state's rights" ideologies; and perhaps it is no coincidence that at last April's rally in front of the state capitol in Montgomery, there was a sea of Confederate Flags and participation by secession and partitionist groups like the Southern League. (Some of these organizations, like many Christian Reconstructionists, have defended the vitality and justness of slavery as an institution).
On Thursday, Gov. James issued another verbal salvo, declaring that
he would appeal DeMent's decision to -- where else? -- the U.S. Supreme
On Bogus Cross Sale
by Conrad Goeringer
August 5, 1997
All members attending yesterday's meeting of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to approve the sale of the controversial Mt. Davidson Christian cross to an Armenian community group. That action marked the latest move in city efforts to preserve the 103-foot-high cross. Last month, the 0.38 acre of land on which the icon presently sits was sold at auction to the Council of Armenian American Organizations, which has already announced plans to maintain the site as a religious monument which would be accessible to the public. According to the local Independent newspaper, "the Council is made up of 31 religious and secular groups who want to preserve the cross as a memorial to Armenians killed by Turks at the beginning of the century."
The Mt. Davidson structure is the largest of its kind in the nation. Recently, the presence of this and other religious monuments on public land has resulted in court litigation. The San Francisco cross was ruled unconstitutional by the Ninth Circuit Court, and that decision was permitted to stand earlier last spring when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from the city. American Atheists is expected to file legal action in coming weeks to challenge the constitutionality of at least two crosses, in hopes of ordering them dismantled.
That case also decided the fate of a similar cross which stood in a public park in the Skinner's Butte section of Eugene, Oregon. Officials there decided that the only way to comply with the court ruling was to dispose of the 57-foot-high cross, and in June the monument was dismantled and toted off to a nearby private Bible college. The Circuit judges ruled that both structures constituted a "breach (in) the First Amendment's 'wall of separation' between church and state."
American Atheists California Director Dave Kong told Supervisor Tom Ammiano, "It is ridiculous for the City to sell a very small portion of land that is surrounded by city property. The sale of the land is obviously intended to preserve the cross." Kong added that he was still examining possible legal action.
Voter approval of the final sale of the cross is still required, and legal challenges may be made.
Atheist Takes On City Over
Ten Commandments Monument
by Conrad Goeringer
August 10, 1997
When Dan Foster saw a Ten Commandments monument on public property outside the city hall of Caldwell, Idaho, he thought this to be a clear violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Foster, Idaho State Director for American Atheists, then contacted public officials including the town's mayor, Richard Winder. His Honor insisted that the Commandments monument, donated in 1983 by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, really didn't have anything at all to do with religion, but was all about being a "forum for public expression."
So, Mr. Foster has done something a bit unusual. He has proposed that a similar monument, donated by American Atheists, be placed next to the Decalogue as an pure and simple expression of free speech. In a letter dated July 28, 1997, Mr. Foster wrote:
|Mayor Winder, In response to your request for a proposed text and size
of the monument to be donated by American Atheists, Inc., I submit the
Text to read:
Our monument will stand approximately 5-feet high, and will be approximately 2½-feet wide. We would like a position with the prominence of the Ten Commandments monument currently in place, and a ceremony to mark its placement.
Mr. Foster attended last week's meeting of the Caldwell City Council, where Mayor Winder promised to bring the issue up for discussion. There was no mention of the proposed monument included as an agenda item, however.
Foster's challenge to the Decalogue on public property comes at a time when national attention is being director to Alabama, and the case of Etowah County Judge Roy Moore. Moore opens his court with a Baptist invocation, and posts a hand-carved Decalogue plaque on the wall above his dais. He is appealing a court order to remove the Ten Commandments display.
In Wisconsin, the Christian Family Forum is moving to have government bodies display the Ten Commandments in all 72 county courthouses throughout the state. That effort is being fought by atheist activist Rob Sherman, who is threatening legal action against any city or county government body which posts the Decalogue. "If they want to have a very expensive holy war, which they will lose, they can go ahead with it," Mr. Sherman has warned.
Commandments-mania has also hit Charlotte, North Carolina, where the certain City Council representatives want to have the Decalogue displayed, despite rulings against the practice. Council member Don Reid is trying to get the proposal on the August 25 Council agenda. He told a reporter for the Charlotte Observer, "Isn't it about time that officials in this city shouted from the hilltops ... that this country was build on Judeo-Christian principles?"
While Mr. Reid, Judge Moore and others defend the Ten Commandments as religious ideas, some who encourage the practice of displaying the Decalogue consider it a freedom of speech issue. Mr. Foster's challenge in Caldwell, Idaho zeroes in on that claim. The text he proposes is taken from the opening statement of Murray v. Curlett, the famous case filed by Madalyn Murray O'Hair to end prayer and Bible verse recitation in the public schools. On June 17, 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Murray case and ended the coercive practices; it was the first case of its kind fought openly by an atheist, which included a presentation and defense of atheism on behalf of state-church separation.
Meanwhile, Mr. Foster reports that the Caldwell City Council may now take up his proposal for an atheist monument during its August 18 session.
"Why the Charlotte City Council
Should Oppose Councilman
Don Reid's Proposal For
Ten Commandments In A Fresco."
by Jim Senyszyn (with Conrad Goeringer)
from AANEWS by American Atheists
August 25, 1997
In Charlotte, North Carolina, a new effort is underway to "sneak" public display of the Ten Commandments into government buildings. City Council member Don Reid -- who originally wanted to display the Decalogue but was discouraged by the local City Attorney -- has concocted a new scheme which would include the Commandments as part of a "broader" statement in the form of a fresco.
Charlotte Atheist Jim Senyszyn, though, plans on providing Council members with a statement on why the Commandments should not be displayed in any form. The Council meets this evening to consider Reid's artistic proposal.
Senyszyn's reasons are outlined in "Why the Charlotte City Council Should Oppose Councilman Don Reid's Proposal For Ten Commandments In A Fresco."
the Charlotte City Council Should Oppose Councilman Don Reid's Proposal
For Ten Commandments In A Fresco
1. Motivation Is to Promote Religion
Interviews in the Charlotte Observer and other media show that the proposal was inspired by the preaching of an evangelical minister. The proposal is not being put forward by any legal association, historical society, or arts group to promote law, history or art.
2. Four of Ten Commandments Wholly Religious in Nature
The first four commandments: no other gods, no graven images, not take name in vain, and remember the Sabbath are wholly religious in nature unrelated to any civil or criminal law. It is not government's business which god or gods a person worships if any, whether a person makes or worships graven images, whether a citizen takes god's name in vain, or whether a citizen observes the Sabbath. That is 40 percent of the commandments promoting only religion not civil or criminal law.
3. Two Other Commandments [Describe] Semi-Religious Social, Psychological Norms Without Legal Standing
The fifth commandment, honor thy father and mother, may popularly be conceived as a semi-religious social or psychological norm which has no civil or criminal standing. Joseph Lewis in his book The Ten Commandments (New York: Freethought Press Association, 1946) notes that honor is not a term of endearment, it is a form of tribute; and Martin Luther said, "'Honor thy parents' does not refer to fellow men, but to vice-regents of God. Therefore, as God is to be served both with honor and fear, his representatives are to be so, too." The tenth commandment, not to covet, is against a state of mind which has no standing in civil or criminal law. Furthermore, Lewis claims it is really against an "evil eye" practice of witchcraft rather than against jealousy as we know it today.
4. Seventh Commandment Against Biblical Adultery Differs from North Carolina Law
The Bible calls unmarried adults, man and woman, adulterers. In North Carolina, one of the "sinners" must be married to a third party for their dalliance to be legal adultery.
5. Second Commandment Against Graven Images Not Accepted by Roman Catholics
The second commandment against graven images has been omitted or falsely been explained away since the Seventh General Council, 787 C.E. The crucifix was introduced as part of the worship of the Church only in the latter part of the sixth century, and finally authorized by the Council of Constantinople, 692 C.E. When Constantine embraced Christianity, he found that the incurably superstitious would not relinquish their idols, and so the Church, after a feeble and unsuccessful effort, merely incorporated image worship as part of its ritual.
6. Fresco Itself Would Violate Second Commandment Prohibition Against Graven Images
Display of Moses in a wall display would clearly violate the second commandment's prohibition against graven images.
7. Second Commandment Could Adversely Affect Arts Policy
The prohibition against graven images could prevent support for representational visual art regardless of the controversial or non-controversial nature of its content and limit support to abstract modern art only.
8. Brutal Penalties and Punishments for Violating Commandments
Robert Ingersoll noted in Some Mistakes of Moses (Buffalo: Prometheus Press, 1986) that when Moses descended from Mount Sinai three thousand men were butchered for practicing idolatry before the commandment against it had even been given to them. The Bible also prescribes death for cursing one's parents, and for adultery. How can the City Council hold up the Ten Commandments as exemplary law?
9. Ninth and Tenth Commandments Only Protect "Neighbor"
The ninth commandment against false witness, and the tenth commandment against coveting explicitly express a clannish concern for "neighbor" rather than full equal protection of the law.
10. Sixth Commandment Protects Only Israel
According to Joseph Lewis, the sixth commandment against killing is a taboo based on a superstitious belief in animism against spilling blood because of blood pollution which would prevent the earth from yielding fruit. Numbers Chapter 35 verse 34 states:
"Defile not therefore the land which ye shall inhabit, wherein I dwell: for I the Lord dwell among the children of Israel."
This means, of course, that blood could be spilt or shed outside the tribe of the Israelites, which is not full equal protection of the law.
For First Amendment!
by Conrad Goeringer
August 28, 1997
Alabama Freethought Society activist Adam Butler is calling upon all state-church separation groups and individuals to join him Saturday, August 30, to protest Judge Roy Moore, the state's controversial Ten Commandments enthusiast. The occasion is an award presentation to Moore for his role in displaying the Decalogue above the dais in his Etowah County courtroom, and opening judicial proceedings with a Baptist invocation.
Moore's practices have attracted national support from religious groups. The U.S. Congress passed a non-binding resolution last spring support the display of the Commandments. And Alabama Governor Fob James has petulantly threatened to mobilize the state guard, highway patrol, and even the University of Alabama football squad if necessary to resist any "federal court order" putting an end to Moore's constitutionally suspect activities.
Moore is slated to receive an award at 7 p.m. in Wallace Hall on the campus of the Gadsden State Community College in Gadsden, Alabama, during a performance of the Steeles Gospel Choir. Gadsden is about 65 miles from the metropolitan Birmingham area. The peaceful protest -- emphasizing state-church separation -- is open to all who defend the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.
Mr. Butler has told news media that protesters will remain outside of the auditorium during the concert and award ceremony, and conclude the demonstration with a candlelight vigil. He told the Gadsden news media, "I have yet to understand how someone could live with himself or herself while attempting to destroy the rights of others." Butler added, "We are simply a group of individuals who wish to stand up for the First Amendment and make our presence known to those that want to take our rights away."
Religious Group Wants
Cheese Head Display
by Conrad Goeringer
from AANEWS by American Atheists
September 8, 1997
In Green Bay, Wisconsin, a town which already mingles the legend of football greatness with born-again religious fervor, an effort is underway to have the Ten Commandments displayed in the local courthouse. The state chapter of the Christian Family Association rallied at the Bayside Christian Fellowship Church yesterday, in an effort to pressure country residents and public officials to erect a plaque of the Decalogue. In July, the group announced that it was hoping to have the Commandments posted in all 72 county courthouses throughout the state.
Dennis Pape, director of CFA, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "We want God back in our country. We believe that we cannot continue down the path we're on and survive as a nation." But despite the obvious religious references -- and the fact that several of the Commandments are clearly religious -- Pape insists that this is not a state-church separation, and that the Decalogue is "not a religion. It's a document given by God to Moses."
Green Bay is just the latest community divided over efforts by religious groups to include sectarian displays or rituals in government buildings. In Charlotte, North Carolina, the City Council just tabled a similar motion to display the Commandments until after the November election. And having Decalogue plaques erected in schools or other government buildings has become a major priority with many of the religious groups supporting Alabama county Judge Roy Moore, who is challenging an order to remove his hard-carved Ten Commandments display from the walls of his Etowah County courtroom. Moore also opens judicial proceedings with a Baptist invocation.
In Wisconsin, atheist activist Rob Sherman has already challenged various county government groups on the Commandments issue, pointing out that the proposed displays violate the First Amendment's prohibition against endorsing religious belief, or favoring one belief over another. Sherman has also threatened court action, saying, "If it's a legal fight they want, they will have it. And they'll lose."
It's not yet known whether or not Green Bay citizens -- affectionately known as "Cheese Heads" for their outrageous regional costumes and support for the Packers -- will go along with the CFA proposal. Religion and football are altar callings in that small community (the smallest of the NFL franchises), where defensive head Reggie White, the "Minister of Defense," is well known for his strong religiosity. At the end of last season's Superbowl, White attracted national attention when he called for a group prayer after the game.
Putting up the Commandments in Green Bay, though, may not be enough
to give the Packers a perfect season. The Pack lost a 10-9 heartbreaker
yesterday to the Philadelphia Eagles when rookie place-kicker Ryan
Longwell's 28-yard field goal went wide in the last 11 seconds of the game.
Legal Actions in North Carolina, Hawaii
Challenge Religious Monuments
by Conrad Goeringer
September 16, 1997
A plaque of the Ten Commandments in a North Carolina courthouse and a 37-foot-high cross situated on a U.S. Army post in Hawaii are the two latest targets of litigation on behalf of state-church separation.
In North Carolina, atheist Richard Suhre has won a round in his battle to have the Decalogue plaque removed from the Haywood County courthouse; his suit dates back to September, 1994 when he filed his initial challenge against county commissioners and the county manager to force removal of the display. Residents submitted petitions with over 16,000 names in support of the county's stand to retain the Ten Commandments, however, and commissioners then established a legal defense fund to underwrite costs.
In June, 1995, U.S. District Judge Lacy Thornburg dismissed Mr. Suhre's lawsuit; an appeal was then made to the Fourth U.S. Court of Appeals. Thornburg's ruling was reversed in January, 1996, and the county then filed yet another motion asking that the case be dismissed, claiming that Suhre had not been damaged and that the plaintiff lacked legal standing. Three months later, Judge Thornburg again dismissed the case, and Suhre went back to the Fourth U.S. District Court.
Last week, Mr. Suhre won a minor skirmish in his war to remove the Commandments plaque. The Circuit Court ruled that oral arguments in the case will be heard on October 1. Suhre, who celebrates his 87th birthday this week, told the Waynesville Mountaineer newspaper that he won't be in the courtroom when his attorney, George Daly, presents the case for separation to the three judge panel. "I'm an old man and I don't like to travel," said Suhre. He added that, "Other people have had less harm than I," noting a similar case in Georgia where two lawyers succeeded in having a similar Ten Commandments plaque removed, simply because they had to walk by the display in order to get to courtrooms.
Mr. Suhre also boasts of being a long-time atheist, at least since college where he trained as an engineer. "In my immature days I was a Christian because churches claimed to be a good thing. It was a social thing to do." He adds that he then went to a university "to study science, all the miracles of the Bible merely disappeared. If you try to apply scientific figures to whatever God does, it doesn't wash."
Suhre doesn't think much of the Haywood County Commissioner's exalted legal defense fund. He notes that while 16,000 signatures appeared on the petition supporting the Decalogue display, signers have contributed an average of only about 20 cents each to fund the court battle; Suhre adds that the $116,407 which has to date been spent by the government works out to an average cost per petitioner of about $7.80. "That tells you how much the petition signers really want to support the situation."
Meanwhile, plaintiff attorney Daly is confident that sooner or later, Suhre will win and the Decalogue will be ordered removed. He notes that taxpayer funds have been spent maintaining the commandments display.
Hawaii Cross Targeted
Several thousand miles away, atheist Mitch Kahle and Hawaii Citizens for the Separation of State and Church (HCSSC) have filed suit to remove the 37-foot-tall cross located near Kolekole Pass on the U.S. Army's Schonfield Barracks. Mr. Kahle charges that the cross is a "blatant and obvious violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendments," and notes that the Christian monument was constructed in 1962 using taxpayer money and army equipment. Evan Shirley, HCSSC attorney, adds that the giant cross is really a "religious billboard."
The cross can be seen for miles around Central Oahu. Army officials sent mixed signals about the issues in the HCSSC suit. Lt. Col Dale Woodling, staff judge advocate, said that authorities "do not believe that the cross or the stairs leading up to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Accordingly, this command does not intend to remove either the cross or the stairs at this time." Last week, though, after the HCSSC filed its action, a spokeswoman for the 25th Division, U.S. Army told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin newspaper, "The Army does not comment on matters pending litigation."
Mr. Kahle said that when they received word of the impending suit, the government offered an unspecified "secret agreement." Attorney Shirley and HCSSC promptly rejected that arrangement, however, arguing that the plaintiffs had every right to have their case heard in a public court and in the media spotlight.
Documents in the case reveal that the Kolekole cross was not only built with public funds, but that the decision to erect the religious monument was made at the request of a local priest for use in Easter Sunrise services. Kahle argues that the army's ownership, maintenance and display of the cross "represents a governmental endorsement by the United States of America of religion, in particular, the Christian religion."
Media reacted favorably to the filing. Stories of the HCSSC press conference which announced the suit ran in both major newspapers, and the event was covered with video from the four major networks, and several radio stations. Mr. Kahle also debated the local attorney for the Rutherford Institute on "Island Issues," Hawaii's leading political talk show. News coverage and copies of the group's complaint can be found at http://www.lava.net/~hcssc.
The Hawaii suit has potential importance in another case involving a similar religious monument. In San Francisco, there may be legal action to stop city officials from "selling" the 0.38 acres of land where the giant Mt. Davidson cross presents sits. The Hawaii case is nearly identical to that filed there which called for the removal of a 65-foot wooden cross erected at Camp Smith. In December, 1988, a federal court ruled that the cross was a distinctly religious icon, and violated the constitutional separation of state and church. It was dismantled and replaced by a flagpole.
Christian Coalition at Crossroads,
Rallies in Atlanta
Atlanta Freethought Society
and Others Demonstrate
For First Amendment Rights
September 16, 1997
The New York Times described it as "another joyous weekend of prayer and politics," as the Christian Coalition held it annual "Road To Victory" conference in Atlanta, September 12-14. Observers and pundits, though, say that the religious lobbying group is at a crucial points in its history, a point underscored by the gushing salutes to the Coalition's outgoing Executive Director, Ralph Reed. The group's new president, Don Hodel, tried to remind the audience and news media, "America, we are still here, and we're going to be here for years to come." CC Founder Pat Robertson assured supporters, "We have not lost our vision -- we haven't wavered in our faith."
Outside the Coalition's schmooze-fest, demonstrators from the Atlanta Freethought Society and other groups protested the "Road To Victory" gathering. AFS President Kimberly Lyle-Wilson defended state-church separation in a television interview, and shots of the demonstration made it onto the CNN news feed. Ed Buckner, Vice President of AFS noted, "We are proud to have participated in this event and we urge freethinkers everywhere to be active in similar educational efforts." He noted that AFS had limited time to organize its demonstration, but "it was great fun."
Inside, though, it was business as usual with Coalition boosters mixing social conservative politics and passionate "faith-based" rhetoric. Several GOP presidential hopefuls showed up, including radio talk-show host Alan Keyes, who gave his usual refrain of "Stop killing the babies!" A surprising amount of delegate support coalesced around Sen. John Ashcorft of Missouri, though, who was greeted with "spontaneous" floor demonstrations and placards bearing the message "Run John Run" and "Ashcroft for President." He told the Coalition delegates that he and wife would "seek your prayers in the months ahead as we consider pursuit of the nation's highest office. We want your prayers that our decision-making process will reflect the spirit of Christ."
Other Republican luminaries such as former Presidential wannabe Steve Forbes took the podium, along with House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The Coalition's support of Gingrich has created a mini-split in religious right ranks; critics charge that Gingrich is not sufficiently aggressive in promoting the group's social agenda, and sacrifices issues such as ban on abortion, or passage of a school prayer amendment for deals with the Democrats on budget and finance.
Coalition at the Crossroads
This year's "Road To Victory" conference suggests that the Christian Coalition faces a rough path in the coming months. The loss of Ralph Reed could hurt the group. Reed built the group after its founding in 1988 by Pat Robertson from a mailing list to a political action committee which controls Republican organizations in over two dozen states. The Coalition is credited with guaranteeing the party's 1996 nomination to former Kansas Senator Bob Dole; and while Dole lost the White House race to President Clinton, Republicans managed to maintain their control of both sides on Capitol Hill, albeit by smaller margins than before. Reed took credit for "preventing a Republican melt down" in last November's elections.
The new coalition leadership consists of Don Hodel, former Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan, and Randy Tate, former one-term Representative from Washington state. Robertson still lurks in the background, though, calling the shots: and Reed, who has struck out on his own to open a political campaign consulting firm based in Atlanta, still retains a slot on the Christian Coalition board. There is speculation that one of Reed's first major clients might be House Speaker Gingrich who has survived a leadership challenge within party ranks, and is now undergoing an image make over, complete with hair and wardrobe style change. That has prompted some speculation that Gingrich may be testing the waters for a run the GOP Presidential primaries.
The Coalition has also announced its latest legislative agenda, and other goals. Hodel pledges to double the number of Coalition precinct organizers, and the group has announced new initiatives on Capitol Hill including passage of the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act, elimination of certain marriage taxes, and voucher and tax credits for parents who send their children to private and religious schools.
Not everyone on the right is happy with the Coalition, however. University of Akron political scientist John Green told The New York Times, "A steady drumbeat of criticism of the Christian Coalition -- that maybe their day has finally passed -- has stung its leaders and made them want to argue the counter case." He adds that, "I don't think they worry about disappearing, but they worry about being able to continue to grow."
Critics generally agree that the Coalition's policy of working within the GOP and supporting politicians like Mr. Gingrich has alienated some former supporters. Groups such as the Family Research Council, headed by Gary Bauer, are mentioned as "competition" for the CC. Indeed, Bauer has started his own political action committee, and FRC has just moved into its new, spacious headquarters in Washington, D.C. -- a six floor complex built at a cost of over $60,000,000. For Bauer and others further to the right -- including James Dobson of Focus on the Family -- the strategy of staying under the Republican Party "big tent" has failed to bring bans on abortion, or passage of the Religious Freedom Amendment.
The Coalition still promises to be a major political force in next year's elections and the upcoming Presidential race. Reed can always be drafted back for active duty, and the group has considerable financial reserves and a thriving support network of over 110,000 churches which distributed the CC Voters Guides in the 1996 races. Thus, outsiders may be wise not to make too much of the hairline splits on the religious right. While the Coalition and other groups may disagree on which road to take, the vision of turning America into "one nation under God" remains the same.
Prayer up for Vote
as Culture War Continues
in Charlotte, North Carolina
by Jim Senyszyn (with Conrad Goeringer)
October 7, 1997
Charlotte, North Carolina -- once the home to disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker and his PTL or "Praise The Lord" telecommunications and amusement empire -- is still the locus of confrontations between secularists and those who wish to install religion in the affairs of government.
In August, City Council member Don Reid proposed that a plaque of the Ten Commandments be displayed at Government Center. Reid later told news media that he was inspired by the actions of a county council officials in Charleston, South Carolina, who on July 22 nailed a copy of the Decalogue to the wall of a county office building despite a lawsuit by the ACLU against such actions. He also gave credit for his proposal to evangelist Luis Palau, who according to the Charlotte (North Carolina) Observer, "urged his listeners to pray in public, post the commandments and proclaim that Christ is the foundation on which America is built."
City Council member Reid was also tapping into the enthusiasm of many Christian "prayer warriors" who are inspired by Judge Roy Moore, an Etowah County, Alabama, jurist who begins judicial proceedings with a Baptist invocation, and has erected a hand-carved Ten Commandments plaque over his dais. Moore has attracted national support for his role in defying court orders to "cease and desist" on the prayer, and remove the Decalogue. Groups like the Christian Family Association and kindred organizations have launched an efforts in several states to have county or city governments erect religious plaques of some form -- always with a Christian theme.
Although Reid was informed by the Charlotte City Attorney that his proposed Decalogue display would probably be declared unconstitutional in any subsequent litigation over state-church separation, the Republican councilman came up with another ruse. He proposed that private funds be raised to pay for a "mural" that would depict not only the Ten Commandments but secular symbols as well, including "a group of documents" like the U.S. and North Carolina constitutions.
"It would make a beautiful display in our lobby or in our chamber, it would be constitutional and it would be an appropriate action to take," Reid gushed to the Charlotte Observer on August 26, 1997. But City Council decided to postpone any action on Reid's scheme until after the November elections.
Public Prayer Criticized as Hypocritical;
Instead, Public "Moment of Silence" Proposed
Now, the issue of prayer in government meetings is stalking the Charlotte area, as Mecklenburg County commissioners wrestle at this evening's meeting with a proposal that calls for an invocation at the start of televised sessions. That flap began last month when a Democrat on the commission, Lloyd Scher "accused colleagues of being hypocritical because they only pray publicly when television cameras are on" (Charlotte Observer, October 6). Unfortunately, commissioner Scher proposed the equally dubious solution of having a "moment of silence" in lieu of the public prayer.
That angered fellow commissioner George Higgins, who this evening will introduce a measure that calls for the board to pray every time a majority meet in an official sessions. "It's going to put prayer on a consistent basis," said Higgins adding, "I think it can be done in a very civil, bloodless manner." Chairman Parks Helms was less sanguine, though, noting, "I'm praying that it will go away, but I'm praying privately. It smacks of political opportunism to deal with it in the first place." Chairman Helms also mused, "My guess is that God wishes we would get on with the business of county government and stop bothering him with this pettiness."
A Growing "Culture War" Issue in America
The angst over prayer in public venues, particularly in government meetings, is part of the larger "culture war" debate raging throughout much of American society. North Carolina is no exception. In the state legislature, there is a steady stream of proposals which would ban the teaching of evolution in the public schools, or require school districts to instruct students in "creationist" pseudoscience as an alternative to "atheistic" evolution. One measure, introduced by state representative Russell Capps of Wake County, North Carolina would have stopped schools from teaching evolution as a proven fact; the bill now has 21 co-sponsors in the legislature.
Other examples of violation of state-church separation, or questions over the role of religion in government abound. In Jacksonville, North Carolina, for example, the Onslow Freethought Society objected to the slogan "Serving God and Onslow County" which had been adopted by the local Sheriff's Office. Sheriff Ed Brown also referred his agency as a "messenger of Christ." And North Carolina atheist Richard Suhre continues his legal battle against a plaque of the Ten Commandments which is displayed at his local courthouse.
In Charlotte, both city and county government councils have instituted a policy of having elected officials conduct a prayer on a rotating basis prior to meetings. The Charlotte Observer notes that, "Though most [officials] are Christian, each board has a Jewish member who also takes a turn leading the prayer, as does City Council member Nasif Majeed, who is Muslim."
Councilman Higgins proposal for public prayer when the cameras are on has support on the government body, including that of fellow Republican and evangelical Christian Tom Bush. He told media that he was "nervous that under the perverted guise of freedom of religion ... people like Lloyd Scher are trying to practice freedom from religion." Bush echoed other culture war angst, adding, "Hollywood and the media have ignored religion. I don't want one more nail in the coffin by having elected officials ignore it [religion]."