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Two situations.  In one, people were asked to attend a graduation ceremony in a comfortable church auditorium with air-conditioning and comfortable chairs.  In the other, a person was tortured and killed for holding religious beliefs. 

Which one do you think represents the evil that our first amendment was meant to prohibit?

It was 50 years ago (September 12, 1960) that John F. Kennedy gave his now famous speech to the Houston Ministerial Society.   When JFK was running for President that year, he was facing severe criticism for being a Roman Catholic. And so during this speech, he emphatically declared that his faith would be separate from his duties as President.

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute….  I believe in a President whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office…. 

I am not going to opine at length now about how idiotic it is to claim that a politician can separate his or her religious beliefs from civic duty.  A person of faith cannot separate religious beliefs from his or her thoughts and actions any more than you can separate your central nervous system from your body.  Your faith, if genuine, controls your every move, your every thought.  Faith is not something you “put on” when convenient.  Either you are a person of faith, or not. 

But I do want to comment on this perverted misunderstanding of the concept of “separation of church and state.”  Today, groups like the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State laud JFK’s speech for stating that there is an “absolute separation” between church and state.  They have used this misguided phrase to justify a purging of all things religious from the public square. 

Voluntary student prayer in the public schools?  According to the ACLU, this violates the separation of church and state. 

Prayers before Congressional sessions?  The ACLU says no

Ten Commandments monuments on display in front of the Courthouse?  The ACLU believes this is offensive and thus violates the separation of church and state. 

A public high school graduation being held in a comfortable church auditorium?  Not if the ACLU has its way!

But really, was the concept of separation of church and state meant to prohibit graduations in comfortable church auditoriums?  Was the genesis of this idea to clean up government lawns from being overcrowded with monuments?

No!  These things are all examples of living everyday life in a society where people have religious beliefs.  Rather, our founders were trying to prohibit the kind of punishment for religious beliefs like what happened to Michael Sattler. 

Michael was a leader of the Anabaptist movement in the 16th Century, and held several beliefs that were not shared by the ruling government of his day.  In America, our Constitution protects the right to hold beliefs that are not shared by the mainstream.  This was not the case in Michael’s day.

And so because of his beliefs concerning baptism, he was arrested as a heretic.  He was tried and convicted.  His sentence for holding these beliefs?  Death.

But he was not sentenced to an ordinary death.  His tongue was cut out to prevent him from giving his testimony during his burning.  Flesh from his body was torn with red hot tongs.  He was drug by a wagon across the town.  And this torture was concluded by being burned at the stake.

All of this – because of his beliefs.  This is why we have religious freedom in America.  We do not have religious freedom so that our religious history can be sandblasted from government buildings. 

The First Amendment was not meant to force graduation ceremonies to be held in crowded gymnasiums rather than a comfortable church auditorium.  Our Constitution was not meant to prohibit politicians, who possess Christian beliefs, from using that moral base to enact sound laws for this nation.

This type of thinking is a mockery to the real harm inflicted on our ancestors because of their religious beliefs.

Groups like the ACLU will argue, “But it’s a slippery slope.  Once you allow graduations to be held in comfortable plush chairs in an air-conditioned auditorium, then you are only one step away from dragging a person through town behind a wagon, tearing his body with fire hot tongs, and burning his body at the stake.”

The lunacy of this comparison is self evident.  But there is a slippery slope involved here.  And that is this – by following the road the ACLU would have us follow, we will end up being a nation whose children know nothing of our religious heritage, and where all things religious are banned from the public square because they might offend someone.

It’s time to remember what religious freedom is really all about.

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ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

I observe in an article recently published in the Baptist Press that “even though freedom of religion is wounded, it’s certainly not dead.”  In 1991, the Supreme Court made it much more difficult to defend churches and religious people with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.  But as the article demonstrates, we at ADF have had some recent success in this area.  That’s crucial because religious freedom is foundational to our political life. As George Washington said in his Farewell Address,“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

In fact, a lack of religious conviction can cause death. A recent study in Switzerland, titled “Swiss Losing Their Religion Are More Suicidal,” found that suicide rates are lower among people who are affiliated with Protestant or Catholic churches. This comes as no surprise to Christians, who find meaning to life in their relationship with God. ”For in him we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:28.  Religious freedom (and exercising that freedom) is vital to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

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ADF Senior Counsel - Church Project

A recent decision by a federal district court in Connecticut has sent a very troubling message to those holding religious beliefs – you are not full members of society, but second class citizens!

Let me explain.  For many years, groups like the ACLU have argued that Ten Commandment monuments must be taken down, Bibles should be removed from schools, prayers must cease, and memorial crosses along the highways must be removed.  Their rationale is that such things make the ACLU supporters feel like political outsiders and not full members of society. 

They get this mantra from former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor. According to her, the First Amendment “seeks to ensure that government does not make a person’s religious beliefs relevant to his or her standing in the political community … thereby sending a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”

Well, the tables have turned now.  In an effort to appease the anti-religious crowd, the courts are now stripping away the basic rights of Christians.  Last month, a federal district court stopped the Enfield Public School District from holding graduation ceremonies at the First Cathedral, a very large Baptist church in the area. 

But before we even get to the part of the opinion that treats religious persons as second class citizens, I have to comment that this case is an example of political correctness gone awry.  Most graduations in large public schools have one thing in common – they’re crowded!  Many have to ration out tickets and pick their favorite family members because not all can attend due to limited space.  But because of this lawsuit filed by the ACLU, hundreds of family members missed out on this most special of times.  So rather than have an event in a comfortable environment, with adequate seating and cooling system, it was held in a crowded gym.  And for that, thank you ACLU!

But a politically incorrect ACLU or judicial opinion is not front page material anymore.  What should be screamed from the rooftops is this emerging trend to strip Christians’ rights as full citizens in America.  Here is why I am saying this: the main reason the judge ruled against the school district is because the Family Institute of Connecticut (“FIC”), a pro-family organization, lobbied the school district to hold the graduation services at the Cathedral.

Did you catch that?  The reason the judge ordered the graduation services to be stopped at this location is because a pro-family organization wanted the services to be located there!  I only wish I were making this up. 

The court said, “The issue here, however, is not Enfield Public Schools’ purpose, but instead the broader context within which a reasonable observer would understand the 2010 graduations. Given the unity of interest that developed between FIC and the Chairman, FIC’s agenda-and FIC and Chairman Stokes working together on that agenda-is clearly part of that context.” 

You see, the interests of the Enfield Public School District and the FIC were similar – they both wanted the graduation ceremony to be held at First Catherdral.  But their reasons were not the same!  The School District wanted the graduation services to be held at the Cathedral because it was the most cost effective place to hold the ceremony in a comfortable environment. FIC wanted the graduation ceremonies to be held there because as a pro-family organization, it wanted this special occasion to be held at a place where most family members could attend. 

In addition, the FIC did not want this outside special interest organization coming into town and demanding that the services not be held at a church.  They believed that caving to such demands would violate the constitutional rights of FIC and the church. 

Unfortunately, the judge ruled against the school district due to this organization’s beliefs.  So the message here to those holding religious values is … keep them to yourself!  Because if you share them, or go to your governing officials and ask them to do something, then the governing official will have to deny your request. 

It’s as if religion is a poison pill that will kill whatever a religious person hopes for.  In essence, the government is telling the church, “because of your religious beliefs, you are not full members of society.  You are outsiders in your own community.  Others who do not share your beliefs are more favored in this community.” 

Now where have I heard that before?

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ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

On Glenn Beck’s program, David Barton, President and Founder of Wallbuilders, discussed the Alliance Defense Fund’s Pulpit Initiative and the upcoming Pulpit Freedom Sunday.  Pulpit Freedom Sunday was started in 2008 by the Alliance Defense Fund.  It is a head-on constitutional challenge to the IRS’ ability to censor what a pastor says from the pulpit.  On Pulpit Freedom Sunday, pastors will stand in their pulpit and speak biblical truth about the issue of candidates and elections.

In 2008, the first year of the Pulpit Initiative, 33 pastors from 22 states preached sermons about the candidates facing election that year.  They made specific recommendations about voting based on their biblical evaluation of the candidates.  Then, these courageous pastors took their sermons and sent them to the IRS, all in the hopes of sparking an IRS audit of the church that would lead to a constitutional challenge to the IRS’ ability to censor a pastor’s sermon.  In 2009, 84 pastors from 30 states and the District of Columbia participated in Pulpit Freedom Sunday.

This year, we hope to have over a hundred pastors standing in their pulpits to speak biblical truth about candidates and elections.  If the IRS audits these churches, ADF will represent them free of charge and will argue that the tax code restriction that censors a pastor’s sermon is unconstitutional.  For more information about the Pulpit Initiative, visit our website.

Pastors must be free to speak biblical truth from the pulpit without fearing government censorship or control.  It’s time to get the government out of the pulpits out of America.

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ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

Have you heard the joke, “if con is the opposite of pro, then congress is the opposite of progress?”  While there might be several examples supporting the truth of this statement, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person’s Act (“RPUIPA”), passed by Congress, is not one of them.

RLUIPA is an example of Congress actually doing well by churches and protecting them from overzealous zoning officials.   Churches were being pushed out of cities and counties.  For example, they were being told they could not locate in the business district because church use was supposedly inconsistent with generating a revenue stream for the city.  But on the other hand, churches were also told they could not locate in residential areas on the theory that church use caused traffic and noise issues so it was inconsistent with residential use as well.  Churches had a real uphill battle on their hands just to locate within any part of urban and suburban areas.

To make matters worse, cities could discriminate against churches under the guise of a bogus safety issue that for some reason, only applied to churches and not other similar uses.   Something had to be done to rein in this seemingly unstoppable power of zoning officials to hinder church property use.

So Congress stepped up and provided churches with meaningful protection against these overzealous zoning officials by passing RLUIPA.  This federal law prohibits towns and counties from treating churches differently than other similar uses.  It protects churches from ordinances that substantially burden their beliefs and practices.

But a recent decision by the Seventh Circuit Court of appeals in River of Life Kingdom Ministries v. Village of Hazel Crest, Illinois, threatens to gut the protections of RLUIPA.  In this case, the River of Life church bought a building in a commercial district to hold its church services.  When the church bought the property, the following uses were automatically permitted: art galleries, gymnasiums, meeting halls, lounges and taverns, along with several other uses.  In addition, the following uses were allowed with a permit: museums, day care centers, schools of any kind, community centers, and live entertainment venues.

But, the city prohibited any and all church use in the district!  What possible reason could the city have for prohibiting a church, which teaches moral values to the citizenry, while allowing community centers and live entertainment venues?

So the church filed a lawsuit claiming that the town’s actions violated their constitutional rights, as well as their rights under RLUIPA.  But the Seventh Circuit ruled against the church.  In so doing, the Seventh Circuit effectively eliminated the protections of RLUIPA.   We will delve deeper into the court’s reasons in future blogs, but for now, I would like to point out this quote from the court: “Commerce and industry must be recognized for what they are, necessary and desirable elements of the community….”  See 2010 WL 2630602, *5 (C.A. 7 (Ill.)).

According to the court, the town was justified in discriminating against the city because “commerce and industry” are “necessary and desirable elements of the community”.   But what about the church?  Is not the work of the church necessary and desirable for the community?  Of course it is.  But to certain government officials who only understand the value of the dollar, providing moral direction and the other benefits of churches is worthless.

Maybe there will come a day when we remember that churches are also beneficial – and even necessary – to communities.

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ADF Senior Legal Counsel - Church Project

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