By Weston Williams
FLEMING ISLAND – In the field of politics, weeds have been growing in the form of thorny crowns, and to many, it’s going to take some grassroots to push them out.
Members of the Clay County chapter of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and others met at the Fleming Island Headquarters library April 25th, to hear a presentation on the history of the legality separation of church and state from guest speaker Chris Roederer, a law professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, based in Jacksonville, and to debate the legality of Christian prayers said before legislative bodies such as town hall and school board meetings.
“[Separation of church of state] is the only way to ensure religious liberty to all Americans,” said Harry Parrott of Penney Farms, a retired American Baptist Pastor. “It is best for both the government and for the religion that they are kept separate.”
While the group takes a strong stance against the inclusion of religion into government, it does not take a stance against religion. The organization includes members of many different faiths, from Christian to Jewish.
“You sometimes hear that groups such as ours are antireligious,” Parrott said. “We are not antireligious in any sense, but we are against a sectarian view claiming privilege and power. We need to remember that we are in the United States, we were, the first nation on the face of the earth to ensconce these principles into our founding documents. We did that after a sad experience otherwise, here on our own land, with religion claiming power and privilege. So we need to be vigilant, lest we slide back.”
Many members of the group believe that we as a country, and as a community, are already on our way to sliding back. Glen Stoddard of Penney Farms, a retired Baptist minister, is one such member.
“Why were they concerned that there should be a separation of church and state?” Stoddard said. “It’s because some people, almost exclusively in churches, wanted to have an establishment, wanted from page 5
to dominate. That was their interpretation of their religion. And that remains true now too. You’ve got people today in this area, as in many areas, who truly feel that their religion should dominate every aspect of life.”
This issue hits close to home for many members of the group, who have experiences disagreeing with the use of prayers at local school board meetings or town hall meetings. “I just want to take exception to the fact that people are offended and that should be a justification,” said Elaine Weistock of Fleming Island. “What I’m concerned about is it should not just be a matter of feeling excluded and uncomfortable, but what happens is when matters come before the school board and they pertain to very substantive issues, such as textbooks or classes, once you have introduced the fact that you have stated by having this public prayer, that religion is a part of school business. Then it becomes okay, and I’ve been at school board meetings where people get up and quote from the bible as justification for having one position or another. I think that’s where it becomes really dangerous.”
Roederer went through the long and contradictory history of the Supreme Court’s stance on these issues since the country’s founding. While a precedent was set by the 1971 Lemon case setting up a wall between religious practices and legislative bodies, the 1983 Marsh case opened a door for religion and politics to walk through the wall. Another factor in the debate is tradition. The founding fathers swore a chaplain in before creating our Bill of Rights, and have had one in Congress since. Roederer said the issue becomes awkward in the context of telling them such a thing is unconstitutional.
“There’s something really kind of problematic about that right?” Roederer said. “Under the Lemon test you can’t have prayers before city council, before town council meetings, before state legislatures, before even the federal legislature. But we’ve always done it. So clearly the founders didn’t think it was unconstitutional. So no big harm right?”
However, Roederer does feel more strongly towards the use of religion in school board meetings.
“It’s different from the school situation where children having to listen to a prayer feeling coerced,” Roederer said. “Their parents being the ones bringing the lawsuit, or you’re the one whose parents have to say you can’t be there for that prayer, it’s not a good situation for that kid whose parents don’t share those beliefs.”
Roederer predicts another legal fight will have to come in the future for this issue to be settled. “They’ve been asked nicely by many different groups within Jacksonville over the last decade, and they have not changed their practices at all,” Roederer said. “They’re looking for ways to continue doing what they’re doing, rather than looking at it from a principle point of view, what the courts actually articulate. The more egregious your facts become, the more you exclude people, the more you don’t consider other groups, the more likely I think that you’re going to get in trouble.”
Chris Roederer, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law, gives a speech on the history of the seperation of church and state to the Clay County chapter of the Americans United for the Seperation of Church and State.
STAFF PHOTO BY WESTON WILLIAMS