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The mixing of religion and government addressed by panelists at Tuesday's OK-AU spring dialogue

Andrew W. Griffin / Red Dirt Report
OK-AU Spring Dialogue panelists (l-r) William Tabbernee, Clayton Flesher, Bilal Erturk and James Nimmo.
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OKLAHOMA CITY - Covering issues as diverse as capital punishment, Turkish secularism, marriage equality and the pragmatic and principled reasons for supporting the separation of church and state, Tuesday night's fifth annual Spring Dialogue, sponsored by the Oklahoma City chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church & State at the Raindrop Turkish House, drew a nice crowd while providing fodder for conversation and debate.

This year's panel - with the theme being "Advantages and Disadvantages of Religious Involvement with Civil Government" - included James Nimmo, communications chair for OK-AU, Clayton Flesher, and atheist and co-founder of Odd Oklahoma, Dr. Bilal Erturk, a finance professor at Oklahoma State University and the Rev. Dr. William Tabbernee, executive director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches.

Moderated by OK-AU secretary Chas Stewart, each panelist took a turn stating their case, beginning with Tabbernee who took on the hot-button topic of the death penalty.

He noted that 94 countries and 18 states have abolished the death penalty, including his native Australia, but Oklahoma, Tabbernee noted, is notorious for its embrace of executing human beings.

"We are the number one state in the U.S., per capita, for capital punishment, and the third in actual numbers, after Texas and Virginia," Tabbernee said. "And the question is 'why'?"

As Tabbernee explained, the state embrace of the death penalty is religiously linked to the "divine right of kings," as interpreted in the Bible, particularly the archaic, monarchist-endorsed King James version.

"The separation of church and state is built on the rejection of the 'divine right of kings,' but the state putting people to death is still based on that now outdated argument of the 'divine right of kings,'" Tabbernee said, adding that capital punishment is morally unjustified, unnecessary to keep society safe, it is fallible, in light of the death-row inmates that have been exonerated, and it is exorbitantly expensive, among other reasons.

Flesher, meanwhile, tackled the separation of church and state from the perspective of its pragmatic usefulness. He talks about Adam Smith's 18th century book The Wealth of Nations, and the idea of "the economics of religion."

Noted Flesher on Smith's findings: "Government involvement in religion would likely decrease pluralism or the variety of religions in a country and decrease religiosity."

Flesher reminded the diverse audience that "The United States is founded on enlightenment principles."

"We do not want the government deciding winners and losers on the subject of religion," he said.

Flesher also talked about the rise of the 'nones' the growing group of religiously unaffiliated Americans who are "nones" due to the "increased perception of government involvement in religion and (that) they don't believe in religious institutions in this country."

Erturk, a native of Turkey, shared his thoughts on the Turkish Republic's secular model which is different in that while the state is secular, they still control much of the Muslim-majority country's involvement in religion.

"One area, which is a hot button issue in Turkey, is women wearing headscarves," Erturk said, banned for having religious connotations.

The law there acts like Clorox bleach, he said, wiping away religious symbols and lifestyle from social life, although in recent years, those authoritarian views are being somewhat relaxed.

Erturk said this approach is not all that different from the centralized, government approach seen in Saudi Arabia with the thuggish Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices that force women to wear coverings.

Erturk suggested that more pluralism and openness and he sees a balance coming about via membership in NATO and possible membership in the European Union.

The final speaker, James Nimmo, addressed marriage equality for taxpaying, American gay and lesbian citizens and how the state collaborates with the dominant religion in denying them marriage rights.

"I believe morality comes from empathy and not from religion," Nimmo said. "Most of us know people steeped in religion, but who have little empathy or understanding for those with differing backgrounds or points of view."

Nimmo continued, explaining that religious minorities "frequently to have to defend their 1st Amendement rights against the stereotypes held up by the dominantly and politically misinformed."

Nimmo reminded those in the audience that the dominant religious views in a place like Oklahoma, where conservative interpretations of Christianity take the dominant position.

Marriage, he said, is allowed for those in prison, as an example of where "morality" is more or less moot. Therefore, the state, embracing "religious dogma," denies LGBT couples from marrying.

He also made the point that the state is in violation of the Constitution's guarantee of freedom of religion by not allowing religious groups that allow same-sex marriage to perform those ceremonies.

Noted Nimmo: "If marriage is so sanctified, why is there no movement, that I know of, to repeal divorce laws? What could be more destructive to marriage than divorce?"

After all, many weddings are conducted in houses of worship, so why not have divorces conducted in those same places, he asked.

"But logic is not part of the religious animus against same-gender marriage," concluded Nimmo. "I believe the moving force is plain ignorance and prejudice."

During the question and answer session, many questions were asked by moderator Chas Stewart and others.

Among the questions asked included one where Erturk was asked about the changes Turkey has made to be more acceptable to NATO and the EU. Erturk replied that it has led to more embrace of pluralism and diversity in Turkish society.

The prevalence of the fundamentalist Christian "Good News Clubs" infiltrating public schools was addressed by Flesher and how they proselytize school children, often without the knowledge of the parents.

Tabbernee was asked about how churches in Oklahoma have responded when it comes to signing a document calling for an end to state use of capital punishment. They agree that there is a moral and economic argument to be made against the continued use of the death penalty.

"We were able to get every head of church, whatever their title, to sign this document. That's a very significant step forward," Tabbernee said.

For more information on the Oklahoma City chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, go to

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

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