Archive - Church & State History

-by Aaron Stemplewicz

Last December Fox News broadcasted footage of carolers, sent by a conservative group called Public Advocate for the United States, gathered around ACLU offices in Washington D.C. These Carolers were singing Christmas carols and holding signs that said “Merry Christmas” and “Please Don’t Sue Me.” The people taking part in the demonstration seemed to be under the delusive impression that the ACLU was currently engaged in a concerted assault on Christmas.

However, the interesting part of the story turned out to be what was not shown on the broadcast. Fox News apparently decided that it was not in the best interest of their “war on Christmas campaign” to air the footage of ACLU staff members bringing warm drinks and cookies to the carolers, and then singing with them. They also did not show how one staff member, who was an ordained Baptist minister, spoke to a now befuddled crowd about his own faith. No, instead Fox decided to show some quick select footage of a few zealous carolers, and then move on to another one of their “fair and balanced” reports. [1]

This premeditated piece of propaganda only further proves to undermine any attempt by Fox News to present an evenhanded report on the activities of the ACLU. The religious right’s conjuration of a secular war on Christmas is part of a larger conservative movement accusing the left of attacking Christianity as a whole, and therefore attacking and eroding the moral foundations of the United States – and the ACLU has been caricatured with militiristic rhetoric as being one of the most radical of these “crusading” groups. However, ultimately the ACLU prides itself on being the gardian of the very moral principles on which the United States was founded, one of which is religious liberty.

Roger Williams, a religious reformer and the founder of the first Baptist Church in the United States, claimed that there should be a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” In other words Williams would argue that in order to preserve the inviolability and sacredness of Christianity (or any religion for that matter) from from the corrupt forces of government there must exist a degree of seperation between the church and the state. The ACLU would agree, arguing that religion flourishes and is most free when it is unfettered from government interference. The ACLU within the last two years has been extremely active in protecting the religious liberty of Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. Here are a few examples of some such cases:

- August 4, 2005: ACLU helps free a New Mexico street preacher from prison.

- May 25, 2005: ACLU sues Wisconsin prison on behalf of a Muslim woman who was forced to remove her headscarf in front of male guards and prisoners.

- December 22, 2004: ACLU of New Jersey successfully defends right of religious expression by jurors.

- November 20, 2004: ACLU of Nevada supports free speech rights of evangelists to preach on the sidewalks of the strip in Las Vegas.

- November 9, 2004: ACLU of Nevada defends a Mormon student who was suspended after wearing a T-shirt with a religious message to school.

- August 11, 2004: ACLU of Nebraska defends church facing eviction by the city of Lincoln.

- July 10, 2004: Indiana Civil Liberties Union defends the rights of a Baptist minister to preach his message on public streets.

- June 3, 2004: Under pressure from the ACLU of Virginia, officials agree not to prohibit baptisms on public property in Falmouth Waterside Park in Stafford County. [2]

All of these examples have arisen within the last year and a half, and unfortunately you will never hear about any of these from the pundits at Fox News. Ultimately, the vision fo the ACLU is to represent those who true Christians strive to embrace most: the last, the least, the lost, and the left-behind. It seems that the ACLU actually represents many of the same people who Jesus cared most for himself. In a time when Christians are celebrating the birth of Christ and recongnizing the many things he accomplished, it is important for Christians to also remember that, while the ACLU may excersize occasional legal overreach, in the end, this organization’s final goal is to protect the very religious freedoms that Christians now enjoy.

[1] Gunn, Jeremy, “A fictional ‘war on Christmas,’” USA Today, 18 December 2005.

[2] “ACLU’s Defense of Religious Liberty,” 20 December 2005

by Chris Eiswerth

“I am for freedom of religion, and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendency of one sect over another.” –Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799.

I must have been a bad Constitutional defender this year, for I have received a government once again flirting with establishing the Christian religion over all others. This idea of a Christian nation has been a focus of mine this semester, and I would like to use my final blog entry to share my thoughts on Dennis Hastert changing the name of the sixty-five foot spruce in front of the Capitol. The Speaker of the House rejected the politically-correct title of “Capitol Holiday Tree” in favor of the Christian “Capitol Christmas Tree.” [1] Now, I am not a fan of political-correctness, because it forces our language to be imprecise and limits freedom of speech, but in this case, it is essential to protecting the freedom of religion that we all cherish. What Hastert has done is placed the Christian religion and its symbols ahead of those of the Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, or other faiths.

The disturbing part of this charade is that not a single member of Congress has spoken out against this establishment. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) press secretary stated that “it’s a Christmas tree…Leader Pelosi has always called it a Christmas tree.” [2] The Democrats are playing politics and trying not to upset the fundamentalist evangelical Christians with these non-condemnations. Some even defend Hastert’s change. Rep. Ernest Istook (R-OK) argued that “the Christmas tree is a worldwide symbol of the holiday season. It is called a Christmas tree because that’s what it is. If you took 100 people and asked them what a tree decorated with ornaments and lights is called, they would all say it was a Christmas tree, not a ‘holiday tree.’” [3] This observation may be true, but it does not mean it is right. Why should the millions of Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist citizens have to watch their elected officials light a Capitol Christmas tree and not a menorah or some other religious symbol?

Hastert, a Christian, defends his decision to call it a Christmas tree because in his mind Christmas should not be removed from American life. The part of this I do not understand is why Christmas, a holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, is associated with a sixty-five foot spruce. Why is a holy day now equated with a tree, presents, and greed? Christmas is no longer a holy celebration but a long stream of “me, me, me” and “mine, mine, mine” exploited by businessmen, yet Jerry Falwell’s legal branch, Liberty Counsel, has launched a lawsuit against the city of Boston for calling their tree a “holiday tree,” instead of its “rightful” name. If Christmas is so holy, as Falwell proclaims, why is it being pushed upon Americans in Washington, D.C. and Boston? Should the faith not stand up on its own? Does it need a sixty-five foot tree to hold it up?

Falwell has given to calling people who try to “steal Christmas” “grinches.” [4] Now, I may be guilty of being a grinch if religion comes before religious liberty. In fact, I will even call myself one, but not because I am against Christmas in the public eye. The holy day can be degraded as much as evangelicals want. However, when the federal government recognizes Christmas instead of Hanukah or Kwanzaa against the Supreme Court’s ruling in Allegheny v. ACLU, I have a problem. Why should a government recognize a religious holiday of one sect over another? I wish you all, even you Jerry Falwell, a happy HOLIDAYS.

[1] John McArdle, “A Tree by Any Other Name Is Still a Tree,” Roll Call, Inc. 5 December 2005,

[2] Ernest Istook, “Putting Christmas Back in Christmas Tree,” 29 November 2005,

[3] McArdle

[4] Stephen Kiehl and Abigail Tucker, “Unhappy with `holiday’; Religious groups decry wording as `war on Christmas,’” Baltimore Sun, 2 December 2005,

by Chris Eiswerth

“He replied, ‘Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me./
They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’/
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.’”
-Mark 7:6-8

“The traditions of men” are quite vague and fluid, but surely they include hypocrisy and intolerance. How else could we have ministers calling for the assassination of foreign political leaders and blaming the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina on homosexuals and secularism? Their Bible tells them to “not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of [their] people, but love [their] neighbor as [thy] self,” yet Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and others lead the fundamentalist evangelical Christians towards greater hypocrisy. [1] Fortunately for them, the United States does not prosecute hypocrisy thanks to Thomas Jefferson and his “wall of separation between church and state” that they abhor. [2]

After September 11th, Rev. Jerry Falwell drew fire for his comments that “all of them who try to secularize America” were to blame for the attacks. [3] Robertson, head of the Christian Coalition, chose not to distance himself much from Falwell’s inflammatory remarks, yet added that outlawing school prayer had caused God to remove his providence. In late August of 2005, Robertson called for the assassination of Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela: “We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability.” [4] This call followed Robertson’s public prayers for the death of “liberal” Supreme Court Justices. Now, I have not read the Bible as much as these ministers claim to have, but I cannot remember hearing of a verse where Jesus called for the death of anyone. I could be wrong, but these death wishes seem in conflict with his overall message of love and forgiveness.

However, if these statements are not judged to be “fighting words” as defined by the Supreme Court, and thus limitable, these men have every right to say them, no matter how inflammatory and duplicitous they are. We must remember that freedom of speech and religion do not protect those with who we are in agreement, but they were specifically written into the Constitution to defend those with whom we disagree most. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, were persecuted in the first half of the twentieth century for their belief in a religion thought strange by many citizens. Not only were the Jehovah’s Witnesses called “annoying” because of their constant proselytizing, but they also were persecuted for their own intolerance towards other sects. The Jehovah’s Witnesses were expelled from school for their “un-American” refusal to salute the flag and violently attacked by mobs. Repeatedly, they would refer to the “harlot Catholic Church” and tell people their beliefs were the work of the devil. [5] Like Robertson and Falwell, the Jehovah’s Witnesses saw the Bible as God’s literal truth, sola scriptura, and still faulted their fellow man.

In Everson v. Board of Education, Justice Hugo Black (former member of the Ku Klux Klan), not the least hypocritical of all Justices, made Jefferson’s wall of separation part of constitutional law, which has effectively limited religion and government from operating in each other’s sphere. This separation allows men of faith, such as Robertson and Falwell, to interpret scripture any hypocritical way they like, and as long as their speech is not limitable according to Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the government can do nothing. We must learn from the history of the violence against Jehovah’s Witnesses that freedom of religion means not only cherishing the right to have your religion heard, but also to allow the faith you despise most to have an equal opportunity – if only Robertson and Falwell understood the irony.

[1] Leviticus 19:18
[2] Thomas Jefferson, Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, January 2, 1802.
[4] Pat Robertson quoted in Richard N. Ostling, “Robertson Assassination Remarks Not New,” Associated Press Online, 25 August 2005.
[5] Shawn Francis Peters, Judging Jehovah’s Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2000), 211.

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