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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)
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By Andrew W.

Dirt Report
, editor

Posted: September 13, 2012

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

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

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

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 and

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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