Tom Loewy: Keep wall between church and state high

Tom Loewy

On the National Day Of Prayer, it’s hard not to think about Rev. Fred Phelps and his loyal daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper.

In April, a federal judge from Wisconsin named Barbara B. Crabb struck down the federal statute establishing the National Day of Prayer.

Her decision — which Crabb said violated the separation between church and state and showed “the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience” — was made moot when President Barack Obama issued a proclamation declaring this day a National Day of Prayer while the administration appeals the ruling.

To see just how low some would build the wall separating religion from our government, just check out http://nationaldayofprayer.org/. The red, white and blue site — which is not an official site of the U.S. government —  is complete with an imbedded background that features a shielded American eagle. The site’s version of the great seal of the Unites States includes the clutched arrows and olive branch but is curiously missing the “E Pluribus Unum” banner in its beak.

We all know the arguments for allowing state-sponsored recognition of religion — specifically Christianity. From many a pulpit, those close to home to others far more national, scholars and pundits alike have worked hard to convince us the Founding Fathers were obedient Christians and wanted the country based on “Judeo-Christian values.”

That brings us back to the Rev. Phelps and his ardent daughter. You might remember their brand of Christianity.

On June 2, 2006, Phelps-Roper led a group of her father’s followers from their church in Topeka, Kan., to a spot 200 yards east of Bethel Baptist Church in Galesburg, Ill. They were there to peacefully protest the funeral service for Pfc. Caleb Lufkin, a 24-year-old Knoxville native who died during surgery after he was wounded in Iraq.

Those who saw children — ranging from age 4 to their late teens — singing “filthy fags, God hates you” will never forget the sight. It was like something vital had been bled from all of us.

Like many others, Westboro Baptist Church claims to know in whose image this country was founded.

“We are patriots. We are the only true patriots in this country,” Phelps-Roper said as she marched. “The time of the true patriot is here. It is a curse when a child is blown up and lingers before death.

“But how dare people come here with signs saying he was a hero. ... We have a volunteer army and people are volunteering to join the corruption of a homosexual government.”

It is a testament to our democracy and the collective protection granted to even the most marginal that Westboro Baptist protested in safety. None of its children were injured or threatened.

The Westboro Baptist Church invited public scrutiny and — as should any entity that puts its philosophy in people’s faces — got plenty of it. Some sought to prevent the church from protesting at funerals — an argument that will be heard in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.

They should not be banned from protesting funerals at a safe distance anymore than anti-abortion activists should be banned from expressing their outrage at a safe distance outside clinics that provide the service.

We are fortunate to live in a society where people of all faiths — if moved to make their beliefs public — can express them in a non-violent manner. The simple idea is that what is private — and held dearly, like faith — can only be made public by individual choice. No person or institution can compel you to express your personal belief or non-belief.

By not favoring any form or practice of religion, the government can ensure the safe conduct of all faiths. We the people, the collective known as the government, must have no conflicts of interest. The belief or non-belief of any person or group — no matter how repugnant or silly to the greater society — will be protected.

The faith of believers of all religions is sacred. So is the right to not believe. All are more fairly protected when the government keeps a high wall between church and state.

Contact Tom Loewy at tloewy@register-mail.com.

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the newspaper.