separation of church and state

Religion and Government

Pope Francis is not a liberal or conservative. He transcends pedestrian labels that drive wedges in American society.

So perhaps it trivializes spirituality and religion to keep political score on the pope's visit. But it also might lend instruction and context to some of our raging debates.

So here's how I score it: In the current American political context, Pope Francis was mostly, but not exclusively, left-leaning in his address to Congress on Thursday.

Church-State Separationist James Dunn Dead at 83

Ken Bennett / Wake Forest University School of Divinity / RNS

Wake Forest Divinity School professor Rev. James Dunn. Photo via Ken Bennett / Wake Forest University School of Divinity / RNS

The Rev. James M. Dunn, a religious liberty advocate who worked the corridors of Washington power for two decades to defend the separation of church and state, died on July 4.

He was 83, and died of a heart attack at his Winston-Salem, N.C., home, said Cherilyn Crowe, spokeswoman for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

After retiring from leading the committee in 1999, Dunn taught at Wake Forest University’s divinity school in Winston-Salem, serving as a professor of Christianity and public policy until 2014.

IRS Agrees to Monitor Churches for Electioneering

Annie Laurie Gaylor is co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. RNS photo courtesy Freedom from Religion Foundation

The Internal Revenue Service said it will monitor churches and other houses of worship for electioneering in a settlement reached with an atheist group.

The settlement was reached Friday in federal court in Madison, Wis., where the initial lawsuit was filed in 2012 by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based atheist advocacy group that claims 20,000 members nationwide.

The suit alleged the IRS routinely ignored complaints by the FFRF and others about churches promoting political candidates, issues or proposed legislation. As part of their tax-exempt status, churches and other religious groups are prohibited from engaging in partisan political activity.

Supreme Court Says 'No' to Public School Graduations in Church

Elmbrook Church was the site of multiple Elmbrook School District graduation ceremonies. Creative Commons image by Sergeantjoe.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday let stand a lower court ruling that a Wisconsin high school acted unconstitutionally when it held its graduation ceremonies in a local megachurch.

The case, Elmbrook School District. v. Doe, involved a high school in a suburb of Milwaukee that rented the nondenominational Elmbrook Church for its graduation exercises in 2009. In 2012, the Chicago-based 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called the event was “offensive” and “coercive.” The church’s banners, pamphlets, Bibles, and other religious materials remained in the sanctuary during the graduation.

As is their custom, the justices did not give a reason for declining to hear a challenge to the 7th Circuit ruling.

Monday’s decision may be a signal by the court that despite its approval of sectarian prayers at public meetings in the Town of Greece v. Galloway decision in May, it draws the line at exposing children to religious symbols when they have not choice about it.

House Considers a Prayer Plaque at WWII Monument; Interfaith Coalition Says 'No'

U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Daniel J. McLain [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

An interfaith coalition has again asked the U.S. House of Representatives to reject a prayer plaque at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

The proposed plaque, which is under the consideration of a House subcommittee, would feature a prayer spoken by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the radio on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

“O Lord, give us Faith,” it reads in part. “Give us Faith in Thee; Faith in our sons; Faith in each other; Faith in our united crusade.” It concludes with, “Thy will be done, Almighty God.”

The coalition — a mix of religious and secular organizations that includes the Center for Inquiry, a humanist organization; three Jewish groups; the Hindu American Foundation; and the United Methodist Church – said the prayer does not reflect the religious diversity of the United States.

Calif. City Torn by Multiple fights Over Public Crosses

Mercedez Devaney, 24, and her father Chad Devaney remove a roadside cross. Photo: ©Frank Bellino/Press Enterprise/

A California resort town, already reeling from a legal fight over the placement of memorial crosses at a minor league baseball stadium, is now engaged in another round of bitter acrimony over the display of crosses on public land.

On Thursday, AnnMarie and Chad Devaney reluctantly removed a roadside memorial cross in Lake Elsinore, Calif., near the site where their 19-year-old son Anthony was struck and killed by a car in May 2012.

Not long after, another family appeared at the scene to erect six smaller wooden crosses at the same site. Each bore a handwritten message, including “What if this was your child?”, “To each his own,” and “Get a life.”

The Two Jacks: Contrasting Takes on C.S. Lewis and JFK’s Public and Private Faiths

President and Mrs. Kennedy arrive in Dallas, Texas on Nov. 22, 1963. Photo: Cecil Stoughton, courtesy JFK Pres. Library, Boston

In November of 1963, C. S. “Jack” Lewis knew he was dying. The Irish-born literary scholar, children’s author, and Christian apologist had come out of a coma in July, only to be diagnosed with end-stage renal failure. He retired from his post at Cambridge University, choosing to die at home in the Kilns, where he lived with his brother, Major Warren (“Warnie”) Lewis.

On Friday, Nov. 22, he retired to his bedroom after lunch. At 4:30 p.m. GMT he took some tea. An hour and a half later, Warnie heard a crash and discovered Jack unconscious. Within three or four minutes, he was dead, exactly one week shy of his 65th birthday.

A few minutes later (11:39 a.m. CST), Air Force One touched down at Love Field in Dallas, Texas, as a motorcade prepared to take President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline, along with their entourage, to the Dallas Business and Trade Mart. But the motorcade never arrived at its destination.

After the president suffered mortal gunshot wounds to the head at 12:30 p.m., his limousine rerouted to Parkland Memorial Hospital where the 46-year-old president was dead upon arrival.

Humanists Warn Public Schools over Franklin Graham’s ‘Operation Christmas Child’

A child receives a gift from Operation Christmas Child. Photo: RNS courtesy Samaritan’s Purse.

An organization of nonbelievers is threatening legal action against public schools that participate in an evangelical Christian charity that delivers Christmas toys to poor children.

The American Humanist Association, a national advocacy organization with 20,000 members nationwide, sent letters this week to two public elementary schools after parents complained their children were being asked to collect toys and money for Operation Christmas Child.

Operation Christmas Child is a project of Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical relief organization founded by Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham. Its stated mission is “to follow the example of Christ by helping those in need and proclaiming the hope of the Gospel.”

The toys collected by Operation Christmas Child come with an invitation for recipients to accept Christianity. Since its founding in 1993, Operation Christmas Child has sent 100 million boxes of toys to poor children.

Reformers Want Congress to End Ban on Pulpit Politicking

Church pulpit with flag behind, Christina Richards /

Church pulpit with flag behind, Christina Richards /

A commission of religious leaders has called for clarity in churches’ ability to endorse candidates and issues from the pulpit without fear of losing their tax-exempt status.

In a report sent Wednesday to Sen. Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has spent years investigating the finances of high-profile televangelists, the commission called the regulation of speech of religious organizations “disturbing and chilling.”

“The IRS guidelines are very vague, so ministers and nonprofit leaders are afraid of the [appropriate] line,” said Michael Batts, the independent commission’s chairman. “We think it can be fixed without creating a monster of unintended consequences.”

The Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations grew out of Grassley’s probe of ministry finances and makes recommendations for greater transparency and reform. It is overseen by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which was founded in 1979 as a watchdog on ethical and financial wrongdoing.

In Wednesday’s report, the commission recommended that members of the clergy should be able to say “whatever they believe is appropriate” from the pulpit without fear of IRS reprisal. Since 1954, IRS regulations allow clergy to speak out on issues but they must refrain from endorsing specific candidates.

On Scripture: Religious Liberty for the Rest of Us

Cheryl Casey /

Protesters in Florida supporting prayer in public schools, Cheryl Casey /

The Puritans sailed to these shores 400 years ago seeking freedom of religion, but freedom of their religion only. Earlier this year, a group of North Carolina lawmakers, apparently channeling the Puritans, tried to establish Christianity as the state religion.

Their action was prompted by a complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU noted that some county commissions and other governmental boards around the state opened meetings with prayer. While these various boards had policies that allowed for a multiplicity of religious voices, most prayers were offered in the name of Jesus Christ.

Eleven legislators, all white male Christians, backed a bill to codify Christianity in state law, saying the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does not trump the state’s rights. The effort died a quick and merciful death.

These misguided politicians forgot a simple truth – even if a state could mandate a public religion, that wouldn’t change what is in people’s hearts. As Roger Williams wrote in June 1670, “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.” Williams, who was expelled by the Puritans and founded a religious colony in Rhode Island, knew firsthand the importance of religious freedom.