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Separation of church and state discussed at gathering of OKC clergy

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
The Rev. Steve C. Baines works on religious outreach issues for Americans United for Separation of Church and State (9/13/12)
Fertile Ground Compost Service

By Andrew W. Griffin

Red Dirt Report, editor

Posted: September 13, 2012

reddirtreporter@gmail.com

OKLAHOMA CITY – During a small interfaith gathering of local clergy (and at least one atheist) and other interested folks at Ingrid’s Kitchen Thursday morning, the focus was on the importance of the separation of church and state.

The Rev. Steven C. Baines, the assistant field director for religious outreach for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told the group, over a light breakfast, about being raised in the Baptist faith (he is now with the Disciples of Christ) in his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina and how they believed three things: 1. Autonomy of the Church; 2. Priesthood of believers; 3. And the separation of church and state.

That third one, Baines said, was driven home as he was growing up. However, these days that separation seems to be entering a gray area as more far-right church leaders challenge the law by endorsing and opposing candidates from the pulpit or in church bulletins.

Some examples offered by Baines included a recent incident where an El Paso, Texas Catholic church that put out a bulletin urging parishioners to vote for someone other than Obama. Another example, in neighboring Missouri, involved a Baptist leader who put out a church-sanctioned bulletin where he said he was voting for controversial conservative Senate candidate Todd Akin.

In an overview, as part of Americans United’s ongoing Project Fair Play, Baines explained that federal law says that 501(c)(3) organizations – including churches and other houses of worship – are prohibiting from endorsing political candidates or political parties.

While houses of worship may discuss public policy issues, “voter guides” are not allowed.

Baines said Americans United, when it learns of violations, will send a report to the IRS and it is up to that federal agency to investigate. Often, though, Baines explained, if the IRS does punish a house of worship, it is often not publicly revealed.

Baines spoke against the current political environment where the Citizens United ruling allows for “millions and billions” to flow through Super PACs. He said that this climate can ultimately lead to “the politicization of our pulpits.”

He also noted the recent Republican and Democratic party conventions and how both parties are trying to “be the greater ‘God party.’”

Noted Baines: “It’s the manipulation of religion for political gain.”

Baines continued, noting that this country has woven religion in with politics on a certain level, so much so that he said that a recent poll said people were more likely to vote for an openly gay person for president over an openly atheistic person.

“What about people with no belief? What about their rights?” he asked.

The idea of a “war on religion” is greatly exaggerated, he said, noting that it in America it is primarily evangelical fundamentalist Christians who feel threatened and that this goes back to the idea of people being afraid that they will lose power as demographics change.

“When you hear there is a war on religion, I urge you to dig deeper,” he said.

Baines gave an example of a friend realizing the importance of the separation of church and state, as desired by America’s founders. His friend, a Baptist pastor, was sent to lead a Baptist church in the Mormon stronghold of Salt Lake City, Utah. Being bombarded with Mormon messages, the friend admitted to Baines that it isn’t fun when you’re in the minority and that the rights of a minority religious group should be protected.

During the question and answer portion, Baines was asked about those fundamentalist right-wing churches here in central Oklahoma that are flouting the law and endorsing candidates in their churches and are trying to provoke the IRS in coming after them. The questioner said that as the leader of a church that follows the law he has “one hand tied behind his back” and that it is unfair, especially if the IRS doesn’t go after them.

Another pastor said he didn’t like “running to the IRS and tattling all the time.”

Another pastor said that he is surprised about the “ignorance” among most people about the separation of church and state and what it means.

Baines listened. He would also remind the group –largely pastors – that Americans United for the Separation of Church and State “is not against faith or against God.” They want all faiths to be protected and treated equally.

While Rev. Baines is in Oklahoma City, he will also be attending an event between 7 and 9 p.m. tonight at Coffee Slingers in downtown Oklahoma City at 1015 N. Broadway. It is sponsored by the Oklahoma City chapter of AU.

To learn more go to www.projectfairplay.org and www.okau.org.

Copyright 2012 Red Dirt Report

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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