Local church, state clashes stir emotions

Augusta State lawsuit, letters on prayers reignite old debate
Jennifer Keeton is suing ASU for trying to silence her religious views.

Church and state clashes are common. Solutions that satisfy are not.

Several recent local conflicts have tested the relationship between church and state and challenged those involved to defend or disparage the role of religion in public life.

An organization of atheists and agnostics asked the Aiken City Council to end the prayers that traditionally open its meetings. A week later, a letter to Augusta's government followed.

Last week, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of a Christian student at Augusta State University who contends she would be required to change her beliefs in order to graduate.

People of faith can find comfort in the fact that "the system is meant to work this way," said Michael Broyde, a professor of law at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University in Atlanta.

"It's a tension that comes from two competing values. We have an anti- establishment clause which mandates the federal government never pick one religion over another. We also have another, which says anyone is free to worship as they choose," he said. "Very few countries have both provisions."

In the eyes of the church, it's more than a clash of values. It's a collision of world views.

The Rev. David McKinley highlighted the ASU conflict from the pulpit of Warren Baptist Church last Sunday. He played a clip of 24-year-old Jennifer Keeton describing her convictions in a video for the Alliance Defense Fund, which filed the suit.

McKinley thanked God for a young lady who is unwilling to violate the authority of God in her life.

"She has been confronted with what I would call a form of academic bias and coercion. And that coercion has ultimately led to this basic premise: The practice of the Christian faith disqualifies a person from a credible practice of counseling. That is the foundation of this debate," he said. "There is a Greek word for that, spelled B-A-L-O-N-E-Y."

Her lawsuit, he said, is part of a larger cultural debate between the authority of God and the voice of culture.

"While our culture has clearly become more secular, you cannot take an eraser to history," McKinley said.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit, sent letters to Aiken and Augusta this month, asking that the cities no longer pray before meetings. They are two of more than 200 letters the group will send to municipalities across the country this year. Some letters are ignored; others are resolved; and still others become lawsuits.

Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor helped found the organization more than 30 years ago because she and her mother, Anne Nicol Gaylor, felt the First Amendment was being degraded.

"Our respect for our secular way of life is at stake," she said. "You have people talking about the nation's founding in faith. It's not true. They're going to win if no one stops them. We have a hostile Supreme Court. It's more important than ever to speak out."

The group celebrated a landmark success in April, when a U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of the foundation, which had filed suit claiming the National Day of Prayer, held in May every year since 1952, was unconstitutional.

A media firestorm resulted, drawing attention to the group's other causes.

"I have to tell you, the best way to end a violation is to go public, go to the media," Gaylor said. "We realized that if we let the public weigh in, sometimes it might not be in our favor, but these things work out."

IT'S TROUBLING TO THINK important matters are left to sways of popular opinion, said South Carolina Rep. J. Roland Smith, R-Warrenville, who is an ordained pastor in the Pentecostal Holiness church.

"There's such a thing as truth. Too few people believe that these days," Smith said. "There are warring factions in the U.S. There's an attempt to drive God out of the public sphere, which is ludicrous considering this nation was founded for the freedom to worship."

He said freedom of religion isn't the same as freedom from religion.

"We open the day up with a prayer and the pledge. We open up our assembly with a prayer and the pledge. We have our caucus meetings on Tuesday mornings, and those start with devotions," he said. "People don't have to participate, but you have to realize, these things are ingrained into public life. I resent being told I can't pray."

When conflict arises, courts should be a last resort, Smith said.

"The problem is the folks on the other side aren't willing to compromise their beliefs against religion but can't understand that we aren't willing to compromise our beliefs in that religion," he said.

The ASU case in particular rings of hypocrisy, said Dr. John Hill, the director of the Center for Care and Counseling for the CSRA, a nonprofit supported by churches to provide discounted mental health care and counseling.

In her suit, Keeton alleges that she is required to complete a remediation plan to alter her views against homosexuality if she wants to remain in the college's school counseling program.

"They want her to respect other views but won't respect her own," Hill said.

Keeton has said professors felt her Bible-based views in opposition to homosexuality are incompatible with the prevailing views in the counseling profession.

Yet, Hill said, it's common for counselors to work with clients they disagree with.

"There are lots of counselors who treat people with views very different than their own," he said.

Hill said the situation amounts to a clear case of discrimination against Christians.

"There is such a clash of world views, and people who have a traditional Christian view are being persecuted," he said. "There are nurses who are fired for not participating in abortions."

Christian pharmacists have also been fired for refusing to dispense birth control.

Broyde, the Emory professor, said such outcomes are to be expected: "I have the right to believe what I want to believe. I don't have the right to have a job with the same protections as my belief."

He says, for instance, that he could choose to be racist, but becoming a police officer and acting in accordance with racist beliefs would not be protected under the First Amendment.

"Just because an idea is protected doesn't mean my job is protected," Broyde said.

IT'S TROUBLING to call such conflicts "persecution," said John Macaulay, who teaches church history at Erskine College, a Christian school in Due West, S.C.

"There's a feeling that the church and Christians are under attack. Is it the persecution of the church in China or Pakistan? No, but in the U.S. it doesn't have to be because there are so many other examples degrading the church's authority," he said. "Historically, the church is at a point that it's never been before."

Since the Roman Empire, the church has gained power and influence and only recently experienced significant decline in authority, Macaulay said.

"I am concerned about the trend. It's not militant persecution, but it's in a form that seeks to take away power that Christians once had," he said.

Warren pastor McKinley hopes and expects a more vocal church body emerges from these conflicts. On Sunday, he reminded the congregation that their tax dollars support the school and they are not without a voice.

"There has always been a conflict with those who come under and receive God's authority in their lives and those who rebuff that," he said. "We're living in a day where the conflict of world views is the most vivid it's ever been. ... What is sufficient and authoritative for life? That is the debate. We won't accept anything less than the word of God."

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