This past weekend I was in DC for the Board of Trustees meeting of Americans United for Separation of Church & State. Founded in 1947, AU is non-sectarian, non-partisan organization dedicated to preserving the constitutional principle of church-state separation. AU has a nationwide membership of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Humanists and those who profess other religious beliefs or no belief. We are Democrats, Republicans, Independents and those of other political affiliations who share a passion for religious liberty.
We started a Columbia chapter of Americans United in May 2008, and we hold our meetings at our congregation. Soon after we began, AU invited me to join three other ministers from South Carolina -- Rabbi Sandy Marcus, Rev. Tom Summers, and Rev. Monty Knight -- as plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging our state legislature's "I Believe" license plate, which featured a cross and a stained glass. U.S. District Judge Cameron Currie ruled in our favor, holding that the plate gave favored government treatment to one faith in clear violation of the First Amendment's prohibition that government "shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
Americans United is led by Executive Director Barry Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister and an attorney long active on behalf of civil liberties. On January 27, 2013, he will speak at my installation service as your called minister.
Since the rise of the Religious Right as a major political force in America, AU has fought to protect the wall of separation of church and state on many fronts, such as defending the teaching of evolution and preventing the teaching of creationism and "intelligent design" as science in public schools, preventing public school children from being coerced to pray and read the Bible, thwarting the use of tax money for private, religious school vouchers and tuition tax-credit schemes, displaying religious symbols on public buildings, and protecting the rights of minority religions and people of no religion.
I am sorry to say that the Religious Right has been quite successful at conducting a misinformation campaign about the Constitution, such as that the Constitution founded America as a "Christian nation," that it does not protect the rights of non-believers, that it does not allow religious expression in public schools or other public institutions, and even that the principle of separation of church and state itself is not in the Constitution. These assertions are simply not true. Ignorance of our constitutional freedoms is the first step toward disregarding, dismissing, and disallowing those freedoms. Or as staunch advocate of church-state separation, Thomas Jefferson, once put it, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be."
What the Religious Right does not get is that the wall of separation not only prevents religious zealots from using the power or purse of the government to force their religious beliefs or practices on the rest of us; it also prevents an overreaching government from meddling with religious beliefs and practices. Do we really want a school official to tell us how and when to pray? Do we really want any government agency to administer our religious practices or define our religious beliefs or manipulate our religious symbols? These are matters of conscience, not politics. The wall of separation protects the integrity of both government and religion.
This is why I am a proud member of Americans United for Separation of Church & State and have been for 26 years -- for as long as I have been a minister.
Rev. Dr. Neal Jones