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Congress is crossing the line with religion

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By ROBYN E. BLUMNER

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 7, 2002


Our politics are slathered with religion. President Bush never misses an opportunity to inject it into his speeches, from his claims that "the true strength of America lies in the fact that we are a faithful America by and large" to his recent radio address in which he sermonized on how it is God's will that we defeat terrorism.

But Bush doesn't come close to the "evangelitics" of Attorney General John Ashcroft, who said at a convention of religious broadcasters earlier this year: "Civilized individuals, Christians, Jews, Muslims, all understand that the source of freedom and human dignity is the Creator."

The presumption being that those who don't support this view are uncivilized.

At the local level, you can't pick up a newspaper without reading about another legislative proposal to force-feed religion to public schoolchildren. Backwater legislatures delight in clever ways to undercut one of the founding precepts of this nation: That civil society will be secular.

One of their latest devices is to direct schools to post the phrase "In God We Trust," thinking that courts won't find a church-state violation in a motto taken from our currency. It's no surprise that Mississippi was the first state to pass the measure, with Utah close on its heels. In Florida, the House passed the requirement but it was stymied in the Senate.

What did pass in Florida and is awaiting a signature by Gov. Jeb Bush is a new curriculum requirement. For a week in September, every school child in Florida would be forced to recite the same section of the Declaration of Independence, the part that says "(Men) are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights."

Florida ranks at the top of the nation in student dropout rates and the Legislature's priority is figuring out how to sneak any mention of God into schools dressed up as a history lesson.

Why be concerned with modernity in Pakistan and Yemen? We've got plenty of leaders right here who believe it is their "follow God not reason" duty to push America toward theocratic rule.

How else to explain the push in Congress to remove the ban on politicking by churches and religious groups? Two measures are pending in Congress to remove the IRS prohibition on churches giving money and endorsements to political candidates. One, the "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act," introduced by Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., already has 113 co-sponsors including House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay. It is being lobbied by a who's who of the religious right and hearings may be convened by the House Ways and Means Committee sometime next month.

The bill was written by attorneys at the American Center for Law and Justice, Pat Robertson's legal arm, for the purpose of further insinuating religion into the political process. It would allow churches to contribute a portion of their income to the campaigns of political candidates or work for the campaigns of candidates themselves, using their parishioners' tax-exempt money. The only restriction is a vaguely worded limitation that political involvement cannot be a "substantial part" of the church's activities.

Give to candidates through a religious organization and write it off your taxes, give directly to the candidate and you're stuck with the tax bill. Hmmm, which would you choose? Imagine the disproportionate influence religious organizations would wield on politics if a bill like this were to become law.

The IRS took away the Christian Coalition's tax exemption because the voter guides it routinely distributed in conservative congregations crossed the line from educational to partisan. But what the Christian Coalition did would be child's play if the restraints of the tax code were completely eliminated. If houses of worship became the only institutions in the country allowed to electioneer with tax-deductible donations, churches could literally be transformed into extensions of a candidate's campaign.

The religious right has spent more than 20 years chipping away at the wall of separation between church and state, trying in Taliban-like ways to inject religion into public schools and the operations of government. In former crusades the technique was "religion by the sword." For the religious right, it is "religion by the ballot box.' The legislation under consideration in Congress would move that goal to within reach.

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