April 1, 2004

Discussing Church and State

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The separation of church and state and the rise of the religious right in the United States government is the focus of a six-day symposium which began yesterday evening and will continue through April 5.

Scheduled speakers include Gary Buseck, legal director of Lambda Legal Defense, Joan Bokaer from TheocracyWatch, first amendment experts Gary Simson and Steve Shiffrin, and Larry Moore, director of American studies, and Vice Provost Isaac Kramnick, authors of “The Godless Constitution.” In addition to the lectures, five films will be shown, and the performance of a play entitled “Going to the Chapel” will be featured.

The symposium seeks to counter common misinformation about the role of the radical religious right in current policy-making, said organizers, a concern which they believe grows more timely with the approach of next November’s national elections.

Gary Simson, associate dean for academic affairs, and Prof. Steve Shiffrin, law, each gave a half-hour lecture last night at the Hollis E. Cornell Auditorium in Goldwin Smith Hall, marking the first of twelve events that will take place during the six-day convention.

Simson’s lecture, entitled “Sex Education and the First Amendment’s Religious Clauses,” dealt with the different models of sex education that children receive in public and private schools, including a comprehensive model and abstinence until marriage.

“The comprehensive model includes a broad education on sex and all related issues, such as abortion and sexual abuse,” Simson said, “The abstinence until marriage approach restricts premarital sex, prohibits the use of contraception and abortion and regards homosexuality as aberrant.”

According to Simson, there has been a recent infusion of federal funds toward the abstinence approach under President Bush.

Shiffrin’s lecture, entitled “What the Religious Right and Secular Left Don’t Get: Reflections on Free Exercise, Vouchers, and ‘Charitable Choice,'” criticized various aspects of each side’s position on those three issues. According to Shiffrin, the secular left tends to underrate the importance of religion in U.S. society and overestimate its dangers. The religious right often overlooks many of the dangers that do exist, Shiffrin said.

Shiffrin went on to discuss controversies such as the inclusion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, secular and parochial school vouchers and the teaching of religion in public schools.

“If you don’t teach religion in schools,” Shiffrin said, “You end up with kids who don’t understand the society of which they are a part.”

The first event enjoyed a sizable turnout and an active audience. Later in the evening, Rob Boston, assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, spoke at the Tompkins County Public Library. Boston’s speech focused on the history of church and state separation in the United States, from the controversy surrounding the adoption of the Constitution — which does not reference God in its text — to current debates regarding prayer in public schools and government funding of religious organizations.

Boston criticized the approach of the Bush administration regarding the role of religion and the state, particularly its support of faith-based initiatives.

“I regard this as the most pressing church-state issue of our time,” said Boston, who went on to say that the federal government has given $1.1 billion to religious organizations through faith-based initiatives.

He seized on a quote from the president arguing that religious organizations can provide hope to citizens, while the government cannot.

“Government can provide hope. This administration simply chooses not to,” Boston said, listing the Head Start program, Pell Grants and food stamps as examples of ways in which he believes the government has provided hope to people.

Addressing what he saw as a misconception that the “religious right” is a relatively recent phenomenon, Boston said, “Thomas Jefferson fought the religious right of his day.”

Jefferson was bitterly opposed by those who sought to establish the United States as a Christian nation, said Boston, who quoted Jefferson extensively throughout his talk.

Boston went on to discuss the Civil War period as another time in which the question of church and state separation was at the forefront of public debate. At the height of the war, Boston said, there was belief among many in the religious community that the cause of the war was that the United States had failed to acknowledge God. It was believed among these people that explicitly mentioning God and Jesus Christ in the Constitution and including a reference to God on the nation’s money would bring an end to the war. While the Constitution was never changed, the movement succeeded in having “In God We Trust” placed on U.S. currency.

Boston’s speech was followed by a lengthy question and answer session. The audience, which consisted mainly of local residents, appeared to mostly support Boston’s belief in a strong barrier between religion and the state, although one questioner pointed out that the phrase “wall of separation”, which was used frequently by Boston in his speech, does not appear in the Constitution.

Following this question, a heated debate ensued between the questioner, the audience and Boston.

“Short hand language is used to explain complex language [in the Constitution],” said Boston.

“The audience participation was good. I was left with a feeling that a lot of the issues brought up tonight need to be further discussed, and the rest of the symposium will do that,” said Anke Wessels, director of the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy, a non-profit group affiliated with Cornell University.

“I expected him to be good and he did not disappoint. I think people have brought up some really good questions,” said Bokaer, who attended the event.

Over a dozen groups and departments came together to organize the symposium — including the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy, TheocracyWatch and Cornell United Religious Work. All of the events are free and open to the public.

The symposium will be held on Cornell’s campus, at the Tompkin’s County Public Library, and at Ithaca College.

Archived article by Missy Kurzweil and Dan Palmadesso
Sun Staff Writers