Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision declaring state-sponsored prayers in the public schools to be unconstitutional. The ruling, in the case of Engel v. Vitale, sparked a firestorm of protest from the religious right over "banning God from school"—a protest that's almost antique a half-century later.
From pushing then for the inclusion of religion in public institutions, Christian groups have shifted their aim and are now seeking—and receiving—public funds for their own religious institutions. Taxpayer funding is paying for a range of programs, including social-service agencies with a Christian mission (and discriminatory hiring practices) and a theme park about Noah's ark and creationism.
Similarly, the fight over education is no longer about whether Christian prayers should be recited in public school classrooms. Now it's about whether public funds should pay for Christian schools, even if the schools deride science and teach the Bible instead.
Here, too, the religious right is getting its way, says Barry Lynn, executive director of Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State, despite the First Amendment's ban on "an establishment of religion" by the government.
Most disappointing, Lynn says, is that President Obama, a former constitutional law professor, has sided with the right and against the Constitution on issues of funding for "faith-based" institutions.
Lynn spoke Monday night in Raleigh to about 100 members and guests of the Triangle Freethought Society (TFS), a fledgling group of "nonbelievers" whose ranks, one member said, include agnostics, atheists, scientists, secular humanists and others "with a naturalistic, not a supernatural, worldview."
Formed in 2008, TFS is a nonprofit group organized as a chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which claims 15,000 members nationally, according to the TFS website. Its purpose, like Americans United, is to defend the First Amendment's principle of church-state separation. TFS celebrates a National Day of Reason instead of the congressionally established National Day of Prayer. The motto on its T-shirt: "Science Is My Co-Pilot."
Lynn's talk, "Church/ State Separation: It's Not Just About School Prayer Anymore," was a free-wheeling denunciation of the myriad ways Republican politicians have aligned themselves with Christian groups for their mutual benefit.
His examples included House Speaker John Boehner's effort to defund Planned Parenthood, an effort that failed in Washington but led to GOP funding bans in four state budgets, including North Carolina's, and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich's promise to exclude Muslims from his administration.
In Kentucky, a creationist ministry called Answers in Genesis was approved for $40 million in state tax incentives to open an "Ark Park" about the world's creation, which they believe happened just 6,000 years ago. A Christian relief organization, World Vision International receives $300 million annually in federal aid, Lynn said, but prefers to hire people who believe in the Christian trinity, in apparent violation of equal-employment laws. And though it says it keeps religion out of its government-funded work, World Vision's funded program to combat AIDS in third-world countries promotes abstinence, not condoms.
A half-century ago, Lynn said, the Constitution was understood to be a "living document" with broad guarantees of liberty, the meanings of which were evolving in response to the civil rights movements of the day. Since then, the political right has pushed back hard with a view of the Constitution as a narrow document that doesn't evolve—except by amendment—and promises only the framers' "original intent."
Under this view, for example, any federal role in health care would be unconstitutional, since the framers would have considered health care to be a private or, perhaps, a local matter. Of course, when the framers were living, health care was primitive, and leeches were state-of-the-art medicine.
Biblical literalists, Lynn said, have made common cause with corporate interests and rich libertarians like the billionaire Koch brothers when equating "original intent" with anti-government. The latter oppose government because they don't need it and don't want to pay for it. The literalists oppose government because they want churches—Christian churches—to be at the center of American life.
Consequently, Lynn said, the issue of church-state separation, which used to be about narrow questions like school prayer, has morphed and "is now about everything" in the public sphere—including whether there should be a public sphere in the first place. No question is too big or too small. All are hard-fought.
"[The] biblical literalists who are attempting to turn their theology into the legislative agenda for America," he said, "are people who have no doubt about how right they are. After all, they are getting their messages directly from God. And the corrosion that the religious right has caused in major institutions is really quite shocking."
The corrosion may be greatest in the schools, where the religious right is steadily cultivating political support for the idea that taxpayers should pay for a Christian education.
Judges, Lynn said, were once the bulwark between Christian groups (historically, the American majority) and control of school curricula. But that was when such groups were targeting the public schools.
Today, these groups maintain there's no First Amendment bar to taxpayer funds subsidizing private schools (and perhaps even public charter schools) where the curriculum is Christian—even if sex ed and climate change are taught through a religious lens.
Moreover, following three decades in which most new federal judges were named by Republican presidents, the courts not only don't enforce the First Amendment, they've actually tried to keep plaintiffs from citing it, Lynn argued.
The most recent outrage, he said, was a 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in April in the case of Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn.
In Arizona, the Republican-dominated Legislature created a program under which people can designate part of their tax money—a dollar-for-dollar tax credit—to be used in Christian schools. An intermediary, the Christian School Tuition Organization, receives the taxes and disburses funds.
Some Arizona taxpayers sued, arguing a First Amendment church-state violation. A federal appeals court agreed. When the case reached the Supreme Court, however, the Obama administration intervened in favor of the program's constitutionality and against the taxpayers' suit.
Finally, in April, the five-member conservative bloc on the Supreme Court (Alito, Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas and Chief Justice Roberts) not only upheld the program, it ruled 5-4 that taxpayers had no legal standing to even challenge it—overturning five decades of First Amendment decisions.
The gist of the court's ruling was that a taxpayer can claim a constitutional violation only if the government is paying directly for religious activities. Because this was a tax-credit program, however, in which the state chose not to receive the taxpayer funds, it involved no government support; therefore, no taxpayer was harmed.
"From now on," Justice Elena Kagan wrote for four angry dissenters, "the government need follow just one simple rule—subsidize through the tax system—to preclude taxpayer challenges to state funding of religion."
"It's a bad scene," Lynn said. "It's like an extreme makeover of the Constitution that we used to know."