Separation of church and state should not be forgotten

Debates around the separation of church and state have re-emerged, with local events fueling the controversy. The separation of these two institutions is a founding principle of the United States, yet there are many who oppose it.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Casey Rodgers exonerated Michelle Winkler, a clerk for Santa Rosa County School District in Florida, after the ACLU said she violated a ban on promoting religious belief in schools.

Feb. 20, Winkler refused to comply with directions from her supervisor, advising her not to offer a prayer during an employee of the year banquet, but to offer a “thought for the day” instead. She refused and said in an e-mail to her supervisor that she would “suffer whatever consequences.” She asked her husband to give the blessing, because he is not a district employee.

The ACLU claimed Winkler violated a ban previously settled between the ACLU and the Santa Rosa County School District. The ACLU sued the school district and Principal Frank Lay in August 2008 on behalf of two students attending Pace High School who were charged with mixing church and state. As a result, the district agreed to liability and to end unauthorized religious promotion in Santa Rosa schools.

The ACLU brought suit against Winkler for violating this ban at the banquet. Lay and Pace High School Athletic Director Robert Freeman also violated the original ruling by giving a blessing during a school luncheon in January.

Winkler’s exoneration was a victory for the conservative movement against the separation of church and state. This reactionary movement favored by many religious conservatives was expressed by former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris.

In an interview with the Florida Baptist Witness, a weekly Christian journal, Harris referred to the disunion of religion and politics as a “lie we have been told” and said “it is so wrong because God is the one who chooses our rulers.”

Locally, Christian activist Terry Kemple, president and only employee of the “Community Issues Council,” is responsible for 10 different billboards in Hillsborough County that provocatively dispute the disestablishment of Christianity in the U.S.

The billboards, which display quotes from individuals such as John Adams, James Madison and Benjamin Franklin, are used to express the importance of religion in the political arena, Kemple said to the St. Petersburg Times. One billboard quote by George Washington said: “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible.”

In an interview with the Times, Kemple said, “I don’t believe there’s a document in Washington’s handwriting that has those words in that specific form.”

However, Kemple thinks Washington would have said something along these lines and is apparently okay with making up the quote.

Too often, it seems, lessons of history are forgotten and people begin to re-examine aspects of society with naivet toward their importance. The disestablishment of religion is a necessary measure stressed by the founding fathers and quite possibly the basis of the foundation of the U.S. But American children attend elementary school, and the story of pilgrims seeking religious freedom is ingrained in their minds.

The first amendment of the Bill of Rights states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Freedom to practice religion should not include projecting it on others, regardless of their beliefs, in settings deemed free from religious preference.

The use of religious teachings and beliefs already has too strong an impact on our elected officials. In 2005, BBC reported that President George W. Bush told Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen and his Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath, “God would tell me, ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq …’ And I did.”

Bush said God told him to invade Iraq. Though no weapons of mass destruction were found and he lacked U.N. support, Bush showed no respect for foreign nations’ sovereignty and justified his actions through God’s support.

If religion were implemented in political practices, it could become difficult to determine what path God would like us to take. Despite what Bush believed, many Christian leaders denounced the war.

Religion and religious institutions play an incredibly important role in society, culturally and spiritually. The importance of religion is shown through its guaranteed protection from interference by the U.S. Constitution. Many kings and rulers throughout history used their authority to determine the direction of the religious institutions under their control, a practice that would find cessation in the American experience.

Just as government cannot interfere in religion, it is expected and understood though historical experiences that religion should not interfere in politics. America allows its citizens many freedoms not afforded in some places around the world or throughout history.

Justin Rivera is a senior majoring in history.