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My Place or Yours?
Finding A Neutral Meeting Place in Religious America
- by Wren Walker

This past week, religious leaders and adherents from all faith backgrounds have been mulling over the implications of George W. Bush's proposed 'faith-based initiative' which would allow religious institutions to apply for and receive federal taxpayer monies in exchange for providing certain social services. If the talk shows, newspaper editorials and message board debates that have erupted since this initiative was announced are any indication on how Americans view the roles of government and religion in our society, we certainly are not going to come to national consensus of agreement soon.

Part of my regular morning wake-up routine involves two things: a big pot of coffee and C-Span. This morning on 'Washington Journal', one of the speakers was Cornel West, a black professor at Harvard University. Mr. West was speaking on the subject of 'racial-profiling' and its impact on the Afro-American community. A male viewer called in with this comment: " Say a carload of black people are seen driving around in a place where they obviously don't belong... How can you say that this is 'racial profiling?'

Mr. West's reply was interesting in what it wasn't. It was a more in-depth recitation on how racial-profiling puts people of color at an automatic disadvantage and erodes their trust in government. All true, but those statements did not really address the poignant point that the caller's question prompted. I was frankly dumbfounded that neither Mr. West nor any other caller brought up the obvious. And the fact that no one did proves the point: Some things seem so "obvious" that when they are brought up in conversation or in the public discourse, no one finds anything to challenge in them-even if they are dangerously false perceptions.

" Say a carload of black people are seen driving around in a place where they obviously don't belong... "

Where exactly is that place in America where a 'carload of black people obviously do not belong' again? Upon what street in America should a carload of black people not drive? Where in America- where everyone is considered equal under the law- is that exclusive piece of property where a carload of any racial, religious or ethnic group simply 'does not belong" and should thereby avoid entering into? I want to know because I certainly wouldn't want to take a wrong turn along the way and suddenly find myself there.

The last time that I looked, America was still the land of ALL of the people. Every square inch, every street, every piece of property in the public square is open to ALL of Her people. There IS no publicly held place where an allegorical carload of black Americans (or white Americans or Pagan Americans) does not 'belong'... except in the perception of those who see all of America as exclusively just 'their kind' of America.

And that's the rub. What is known as the open public square-the public place, which all Americans can share in and speak in on an equal basis- is dwindling away. And the new Bush administration couldn't be happier about that. We can assume this because the Bush 'faith-based initiative', acting as some sort of moral real-estate agent, has set its sights on acquiring the property that lies right between the church and the state.

The Importance of the Open Public Square

Are there places where some people 'obviously don't belong'? Well, yes, of course there are. Someone's private home, property, automobile and physical body are 'by invitation only' areas. A carload of any sort of people that deliberately runs me over doesn't belong treading on top of my body. My home is for my family and friends and business associates. My property is not just sitting there on the table ripe for the taking. There is private property and then there is public property. The public property that I am discussing here is that of the national and neutral public square.

The national public square consists of those places-both physical and ideological- where any and all Americans can enter on an equal basis. These places belong to all of us equally. And if you were to speak of the current dwindling status of these open national public spaces in environmental terminology, you could correctly state that we are facing a national deforestation of monumental proportions.

The Avenue of the People

Picture, if you will, a scene. On one side of a sprawling and tree-shaded avenue, there is a building that embodies all of the various religions, belief systems and spiritual paths revered by all of the individual Americans of this country. On the other side is a building representing the three branches of the United States government. The broad roadway in between, which we will call "The Avenue of the People', runs right down the center between the two buildings. As in many such real life settings, the Avenue has undergone some changes over the years.

In 1947, the Avenue was much wider than it is today. In that year, Supreme Court Justice, Hugo Black, wrote the words that would define the roles of church and state for many years via the majority's opinion in the case of 'Emerson v. Board of Education' (330 U.S.I).

"The "establishment of religion" clause of the first amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the federal government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws that aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance.

No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the federal government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect "a wall of separation between church and state." (Reynolds v. United states, supra at 164.)

However, it was also determined- when considering the same "general welfare" that all Americans are entitled to- that benefits could not be withheld from parochial-school children for such 'neutral' items as school-crossing guards or bus transportation simply because they went to a religious school. Herein, some would say that a 'reasonable' consideration was made and that the government was showing neither favoritism nor animosity towards the Catholic faith. Some others, such as Justice Robert Jackson, even at the time of the decision, saw this as the first chip off of the church-state separation wall. As the years went by, more chips fell to the judicial ground and today, the Avenue, while still impressive, is a lot narrower than once it was.

On any given day, one could ideally find people going in and out of the buildings lining the 'Avenue of the People' and crossing from one side of the street to the other. People of faith are free to walk over to the government building and talk with their officials about their concerns. Their speech can be colored and embellished with as many religious references, quotations and spiritual opining as they wish as they make their case and state their religious perspective on that case. Just because they are in the government building does not mean that they cannot talk about their religion. Indeed, their religious outlook is something that they believe can add, subtract or enhance a governmental policy. Totally allowed; no problem; glad you stopped in.

From the other side of the street, politicians and legislators are free to cross over the Avenue and speak to the various religious leaders and adherents of the value or interest of proposed 'general welfare' policies (issues in which the religious bodies and people of America have always had a great deal of interest in) under consideration. Ideally, the traffic across the Ave is free flowing and open. Ideally.

Unfortunately, the current situation, the present relationship between the 'All Religions House' and the 'Government House', does not always work that way. Some people in the Government House will not open their doors to certain people of faith (because of their faith) from the All Religions House. Meanwhile, in the All Religions House itself, some religions are given smaller offices or are even sent out into the backyard-not that it matters all that much where their offices are because the politicians and legislators never come over to ask for the opinions or comments of these religious 'fringers' anyway.

Today, there ARE some places where some people can feel as if they 'obviously don't belong'. But there is one place where all Americans can meet and that is smack dab and right in the middle of that place that has no doors, no backyards and no deed: The Avenue of the People.

The Avenue belongs to us all. The person of no faith has merely to turn the corner onto the Ave to become part of the discussions taking place there. Anyone from any religion can stand there and discuss his/her point of view. The governmental folks can wander from one discussion to another in order to take the pulse of this cross-section of the people.

People of differing faiths can debate the finer points of their various theologies and those citizens who may not have developed a spiritual belief system anywhere else can hear the merits of every side and decide which faith-or none of the above- that might appeal to them where they are. The 'Marketplace of Ideas' decides to set up a shop in this most promising of locations and a national public square emerges. Not many people even notice that storm clouds are brewing on the horizon.

The Bush 'faith-based initiative' not only desires to build a bridge across the People's Avenue and permanently link the 'All Religions House' (which by this time is considering a name change) to the 'Government House'; the Bush administration wants to use its 'faith-based initiative' steamroller to rip up the street.

Street Closed

Make no mistake: any bridge between the religious institutions and the government under Bush's plan will be 'by invitation only'. Transforming our public lands into privately owned factories for profit is not just Bush's ideal plan for the environment. He has no doubt that such an approach can work for religious faith-based programs as well. The only thing that the religions have to do is walk across the street and give up their position, not in the now renamed "Some Religions House", but on the Avenue of the People. They will thereafter consent to plot their future not with those deities in whom they once believed the power resided, but with those in whom they believe the power now resides: the Caesars, the secular princes, the politicians.

How can anyone close our Avenue? After all, this street doesn't belong to either the Government House or to the House of Some Religions. While I hate to mix my metaphors, here 's a good one that came out of Saturday's, "State of the Black Union" Symposium:

"You've heard the old saw, 'give a man a fish and he'll eat for day; teach a man to fish and he'll eat for lifetime'? That is true only to the extent that you can answer this question: Who owns the pond? If someone else owns the pond, he can kick you out at any time. If YOU own the pond, you can fish as early in the morning and as late into the night all that you want."

The Bush government, working in collusion with certain powerful allies from the House of Some Religions, will build over the Avenue and, in effect, make fishing at the pond 'by invitation only'. Carloads of certain fishermen and fisherwomen could find themselves 'obviously in a place where they do not belong'. And Pagan Fisherfolk need not apply for a fishing license, at all.

On John McLaughlin's "One on One' this past week, Stephen Goldsmith, Domestic Policy Adviser to the President and the designated talking head for the 'faith-based initiative' had this to say:
Stephen Goldsmith: The president has said we shouldn't be choosing on the basis of religion, so the answer is, the government contractŃ What this is, is performance bidding. It's accountability. It's saying, "Look, we're going to furnish shelter beds, we're going to furnish food, and people ought to have the right to bid, and their bids should be evaluated on the terms of their performance." I don't think we can go in the route of saying, " Your religion's okay, " "Your religion's not okay, " or "No religion is acceptable, " and that's the standard that the president set out this week." (Wren: So far, so good.)

John McLaughlin: What about Wiccans?

Mr. Goldsmith: Well, I mean, you can take this to whatever level you want. To meŃ (Wren: Level? What level?)

Mr.McLaughlin: Well, don't you have to have parameters at some place along the line?

Mr. Goldsmith: But the parameters have to be on the nature of the services presented and what is happening inside the shelter, consistent with the definition of what the government is trying to buy. The government is trying to furnish health care, trying to furnish shelter, it's trying to furnish food. (Wren: Okay. So every group applies and the decision is based not on religion, but on the merits of the program alone. Since no one has applied as yet, no one has been pre-qualified and so Mr. Goldsmith really cannot say today if any particular group's plan will be accepted or denied.)

For me, I don't think that Wiccans would meet the standard of kind of being humane providers of domestic violence shelters. (Wren: Oops. I guess that Goldsmith CAN say who will be accepted or denied before anyone has even applied. He just did.)

I would imagine someone in a graphics art department somewhere is already designing a logo. Much like the stamp placed upon beef, some religious groups will be able to use the official government 'seal of approval' on their letterheads. Maybe there'll even be flag so that simply by walking down the street someone in need will readily be able to spot the 'official' help centers in their area. How very convenient.

Keeping the Avenue Open

The Avenue of the People, that open space between Church and State, is one place where both people of faith and those who develop governmental policies can meet on equal and neutral ground. Religious groups can advise the government on policies, social welfare programs and human resource initiatives in their own faith-based terms. Government can approach religious people in that same place and mull over the best ways to make federal programs best serve all of the people. Each side is equal, but separate, neither is automatically compromised. Neither is 'obviously in the wrong place' for all are welcome to express their views.

Keeping the Avenue open for ALL of the people is what the First Amendment and its implied (and legally upheld up until now) support of the separation of church and state has done since the birth of our nation. I have heard it remarked that this new 'faith-based initiative' is a 'great American experiment'. "Let's just see how it works. If it doesn't work, we can just change it back."

The First Amendment has been already tried, tested, challenged and upheld for two-hundred-plus years. It has already been proven to work. Do we really need another 'great American experiment' with democracy?

Certainly those religious groups powerful enough, mainstream enough, never-obviously-in-the-wrong-place enough, can well afford to do a little bit of experimenting. But what about the 'backyard' religious groups? How many times have you, as a Pagan, written a protest letter or sent a piece of email arguing the injustice of accommodating the prayer and mottoes of one dominant religion while ignoring or excluding the one that you happen to follow? And how many times have you relied on the tenet of the 'separation of church and state' to express that argument? Are we willing to sell off our rights to that argument for a few federal dollars? (Assuming that any Pagan group would ever actually receive a check, that is.)

There is an old teacher's motto: "Don't smile until Christmas." It is always easier to start out tough and then loosen up later than it is to re-establish discipline after control has already been surrendered.

The way things are shaping up, I don't plan on smiling until the year 2004.

Walk in Light and Love,

February 5th., 2000
The Witches' Voice
Clearwater, Florida

  • Footnote 1: 'Emerson v. Board of Education' (330 U.S.I;NO. 52. ARGUED NOVEMBER 20, 1946. - DECIDED FEBRUARY 10, 1947. - 133N.J.L. 350, 44 A.2D 333, AFFIRMED.

  • Footnote 2: John Mclaughlin's "One on One"; taped: Friday, February 2, 2001; broadcast: weekend of February 3-4, 2001; subject: the faith-based initiative; guest: Stephen Goldsmith, domestic policy adviser to the President. Personal transcript, no public URL currently available, request transcripts from Federal News Service (http://www.fnsg.com/).

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