Edwards rallies support for united
response to church-state attacks
By Robert Marus
ABP Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON (ABP)–Christians who support the separation of church and state should step up their battle against forces that are eroding that principle, said Rep. Chet Edwards.
In a speech to a group of Baptists, Edwards, D-Texas, called for Christians who believe church-state separation is good for both democracy and religion to make their voices heard in the public sphere.
“I've never been more concerned about the principle of church-state separation,” Edwards said.
He later suggested Christians who agree should form a political action committee to champion church-state separation and support candidates who do.
“If we don't ratchet up dramatically our efforts, we're going to lose this fight,” he said.
Edwards spoke at the conclusion of a two-day conference called “Reclaiming an Historic Baptist Principle: Separation of Church and State.” The conference, sponsored by the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs and the Center for Baptist Heritage and Studies, brought about 140 Baptists from around the country to the nation's capital.
Edwards said the Religious Right is winning both legal and public-relations victories in its decades-old battle to erode the wall separating church and state. And the debate has become too polarized, he added, with much of the public thinking all Christians would naturally oppose church-state separation.
“We cannot afford the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State to be the only voices heard in America” supporting strict separation, Edwards said, referring to two secular advocacy groups that have been on the legal and media frontlines fighting church-state battles in recent years.
The recent legal battle that resulted in a Ten Commandments display being removed from an Alabama courthouse was a mixed blessing, Edwards said. “While we won an important legal victory in Alabama lately, it was a brutal public-relations defeat,” he said.
Listing a host of congressional and judicial efforts in recent years that he claimed threaten the First Amendment's ban on government promotion of religion, Edwards said religious people need to speak up to change the perception that only “secularists” or people who are “anti-religion” support the principle of strict church-state separation.
Edwards–whose congressional district includes President Bush's ranch outside Crawford–said Bush and his congressional allies are behind much of the onslaught against religious liberty. While he believes Bush has sincerely good motivations in his efforts to provide government funding to religious schools and charities, Edwards said he believes Bush is sincerely wrong.
“On this issue of church-state separation, I just don't think he gets it,” Edwards said. “I don't think he understands the first 16 words of the First Amendment.”
Those words are: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Edwards also noted much of the long-term ability to affect church-state issues lies in the president's power to appoint judges to federal courts, including the Supreme Court. President Bush has cited the two members of that court who are most hostile to church-state separation as his model for judges–justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
Edwards said many of his colleagues in Congress tell him privately that they agree with him on important church-state issues but then do not vote with him. Sometimes it's due to ignorance on a particular issue, he said, but “it is an ignorance exacerbated by a fear … that, as we are running for re-election, we will be perceived as anti-religion.”
Because of all that, Edwards said, Christians who agree with him on church-state issues should form both grassroots organizations and think tanks to combat the well-funded and well-organized effort on the other side.
He mentioned EMILY's List, a group that encourages its members to donate to the campaigns of progressive Democratic women running for public office. He suggested that “people of faith” who support church-state separation could create a similar list to encourage donations to candidates who promise to support separation.
Asked by a reporter if he were suggesting the formation of a political action committee, Edwards said he was.
“We could call it the 'Jefferson-Madison List,'” he said, referring to the fathers of the First Amendment's religious-liberty clauses.
Leaders of two conservative Christian lobbying groups scoffed at Edwards' proposal.
Bill Murray, media coordinator for the Family Research Council, cited public opinion polls he says support government funding of religious programs, “especially” Christian programs. “The public doesn't seem to be clamoring for more separation of church and state,” he said.
“You have secularists out there–apparently, who Congressman Edwards was also railing against–who are trying to take God completely out of the public square,” Murray said. “What we're trying to do is protect the freedom of expression that is guaranteed to all of us in the Constitution.”
“I don't understand Congressman Edwards' complaint,” added Jim Backlin, director of legislative affairs for Christian Coalition of America. “The liberals such as Chet Edwards have always had very liberal organizations such as the National (Council) of Churches. … And there's no reason why pro-family and conservative Christians can't get behind conservative organizations, because they have First Amendment rights too.”
Edwards' current congressional district, which includes the Waco area, has been redrawn this year by the Texas Legislature. If this redistricting proceeds with court approval, most congressional observers believe Edwards either will not run for re-election or will not win re-election.
“If we don't ratchet up dramatically our efforts, we're going to lose this fight.”
U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards