Tuesday, July 7, 2015

On Removing Oklahoma's Ten Commandments Monument(s)

American Christians have been divided over the relation of the Ten Commandments to government since 1635.  That was when a Separatist Baptist minister who fled religious persecution in England was drug before the magistrates in Massachusetts Bay Colony for espousing "dangerous opinions" that threatened the peace and order of the colony.  The charge against Roger Williams, which he freely admitted, was that he proclaimed that civil government should only enforce the "second table" of the ten commandments -- the last six commandments.  The commands of the "first table" of the law -- the commands regarding religion and worship -- were matters of private, individual conscience.  Williams was convicted and banished from the colony.

Roger Williams believed that there should be a "wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world."  Likening compulsory religion to a spiritual rape, he insisted that genuine faith was a conscientious voluntary commitment.  He was the first American advocate for religious liberty for everyone -- whether, in his words, they were "paganish, Jewish, Turkish or anti-Christian."

Williams went on to found the Colony of Rhode Island and the First Baptist Church in the Americas.  The charter that he and John Clarke, another Baptist, secured for that Colony has been described as the first charter in the history of the world to secure "a free, full, and absolute liberty of conscience."  Among other things it guaranteed that no person would be "molested" on account of their religious beliefs.

In time, Rhode Island's provision against being "molested" for religious convictions would make its way into the charters and constitutions of several other colonies and states.   Among them, Oklahoma, but for more than another century Baptists and other religious minorities suffered for their religious convictions.  As late as the early 1770's jails in Virginia were filled with Baptist preachers whose only crime was "preaching without a license."  By law, only Anglicans or Presbyterians could get a license to preach.

That is why Virginia Baptists refused to ratify the proposed U.S. Constitution until an amendment was added that secured the right to religious liberty for everyone.  When the Constitution with the First Amendment was finally ratified, John Leland the leader of Virginia Baptists, rejoiced that it made it possible for a "Pagan, Turk, Jew or Christian" to be eligible to serve in any post or office in the government.

Baptists support for separation of church and state endured for nearly two more centuries.  With this support states like Oklahoma, populated with numerous Baptists, wrote state constitutions that made separation of religion and government even more explicit than in the U.S. Constitution.  Oklahoma's State Constitution made sure that religion could never receive any tangible support from the government:
“No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use, benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest, preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or sectarian institution as such.” ( Section II-5)  
How could separation of religion and government be made more explicit?

Baptist support for separation of church and state began to decline after the civil rights era.  During the 1970's and early 1980's Bob Jones University and the IRS were engaged in a law suit over the constitutionality of the IRS's denial of the school's tax exempt status.   In 1970 the IRS ruled that contributions to private schools with racially discriminatory policies no longer qualified as charitable tax deductions under the provisions of the tax code.  The school argued that denying them the right to discriminate on the basis of race violated their  right to religious liberty.

Many prominent Southern Baptist ministers, along with several TV evangelists and conservative mega-church preachers from other denominations were alarmed when the Carter administration supported the IRS ruling.  A number of them determined to organize political activists within their churches and institutions and then use them to exert influence on secular politics.  The result was a fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention and the rise of the Religious Right.

The more successful their political efforts, the more they promoted the union of church and state.  By 1998 Richard Land, then President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, was telling the New York Times that the Religious Right was tired of being taken for granted by the GOP: "No more engagement.  We want a wedding ring, we want a ceremony, we want a consummation of the marriage."

The Religious Right never got a ring.  Diamonds were too small for a movement this size.  Instead, they settled on granite.  All around the country, large granite monuments became the symbol of an unholy union of pretentious piety and politics.   Erecting Ten Commandments monuments on public property -- preferably at the state capitol or on the courthouse lawn -- became the sign that the marriage of right-wing religion and the local government has been consummated in that community.

Nowhere has the engagement of right-wing religion with government been more prominent than in Oklahoma and both parties have been desperate to effect a consummation.  

The first attempt was a monument on the courthouse lawn in Haskell County, but elected leaders there proved too vocal about their intent to establish religion.  In 2010, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it unconstitutional and made them remove it.

Before that case was final, lawmakers approved of the erection of a Ten Commandments monument at the State Capitol.  There elected leaders deliberately attempted to circumvent Section II-5 of the State Constitution and key leaders were careful to describe the monument in secular terms as merely a historical artifact related to law.   Public perception, however, has always been that the monument is religious nature.

I, an ordained minister, opposed placing this monument on public property and filed suit with the ACLU because I believe it is bad for religion.  The Ten Commandments is a covenant between God and people of faith.   The text mentions God six times and refers to "the Lord" seven times.  It is obviously religious in nature.  Erecting the monument under sham secular pretenses serves only to trivialize the holiness of sincere religious covenants and undermines religion by negating the significance of the most sacred symbols of religious language.

The Oklahoma Supreme Court recently agreed that the Ten Commandments monument is not merely historical.  The court said it is "obviously religious in nature."  The ruling also accused lawmakers of attempting to circumvent the clear intent of the language of the state constitution which prohibits the government from "directly or indirectly" providing support for religion.

This ruling is good for both religion and the government, but the verdict may not yet be final.  Incensed that their consummation has been denied yet again, the governor is refusing to remove the monument and state legislators are threatening to either impeach supreme court justices or alter the wording of the State Constitution.

Obviously, two of the three branches of Oklahoma's government are firmly in the hands of the Religious Right and now they are aroused again.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Statement at the Sierra Club Press Conference 1-15-15

Here's the statement I made at the Sierra Club's press conference prior to the EPA hearing in Oklahoma City yesterday regarding haze pollution in National Parks in Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas caused by dirty coal fired power plants in Texas:

I support the EPA's efforts to restrict the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere and thereby reduce the haze and pollution that is impacting national parks and wilderness areas like the Wichita Mountains

I believe that reducing green house gas emissions from dirty coal plants and other sources of haze and pollution comprise the most important ethical issue of our time.  Man made pollution not only has an impact on the environment it also has an impact on our health.  My wife is a diabetic with a heart condition and asthma.  When the air is hazy, she has a hard time breathing.

That is one of the reasons why I believe it is a moral imperative that we do whatever we can to preserve an environment that will sustain life as we know it -- whether we are perfectly healthy or not.

Another reason is that I want my children and grandchildren to experience a quality of life that is as good or better than my own. I have no desire to see life made harder and more difficult for them. Climate change threatens to make the world my grandchildren inherit completely different from the world we live in today.

Increasingly extreme weather events – droughts and floods, tornadoes and hurricanes – are making life treacherous for people around the world. With ever increasing regularity, extreme weather events are destroying our homes, schools, lives and livelihoods.

We have a moral obligation to to do everything possible to mitigate the emissions that are fueling these extreme weather events.

We are all part of an ecosystem. In one way or another, all the forms of life on this planet are connected.  Scientists tell us that global warming is going to cause a lot of extinctions. The destruction of biodiversity is dangerous for our entire ecosystem.

Each one of us has a responsibility to do whatever we can do to reduce our own greenhouse gas footprint.  Do whatever you can to stop contributing to climate change.

We need to work both individually and collectively to support efforts to address this issue both nationally and internationally. 

Make this a burning issue when you are in the voting booth to elect leaders.

The future of life on this planet depends on it.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Oklahoma Ten Commandments Monument Affidavit

Here is an excerpt from my affidavit filed this week in the District Court of Oklahoma County for the case against the Ten Commandments monument at the Oklahoma State Capitol (Prescott vs. Oklahoma Capitol Preservation Commission):

6.      Historically, Baptists have affirmed the Divine inspiration and authority of the Bible.  The Bible declares, and I affirm, the sacredness and holiness of the religious covenant being affirmed in the giving of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19), and it explicitly states that Moses recorded that God personally spoke and wrote down the Ten Commandments:

"These are the commandments the Lord proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and the deep darkness; and he added nothing more.  Then he wrote them on two stone tablets and gave them to me.  (Deuteronomy 5:22 NIV, cf. Exodus 24:12)

Historically, Baptists have affirmed the religious significance and purpose of the Ten Commandments as being the terms of a religious covenant between God and people of faith.

7.      Many Baptists, as well as many other people of faith -- Jewish, Christian and Muslim -- continue to affirm that the Ten Commandments are properly understood to be the terms of a religious covenant between God and people of faith.   Among them some, like myself, are horrified when attempts are made to have secular courts of law rule that the terms of this sacred and holy covenant no longer have any religious significance and meaning.   In the long run, I believe the effect of such rulings serves to undermine sincere faith by trivializing the value of religious covenants.

8.       Foremost among the terms in the covenant are those that identify Divinity.   The word "God" appears six times, usually within the phrase "the Lord your God" (five times).  The word "Lord" appears seven times.  One of the commandments pertains to the dignity necessary when invoking Divinity and the special care necessary to assure that every invocation of God have meaning and significance:

“You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name."  (Exodus 20:7 NIV)

I believe that the name of the Lord God is "misused" when declarations are made that the words "Lord" and "God" on Ten Commandments monuments are historical artifacts and no longer have religious meaning and significance.   In effect, this undermines religion by negating the significance of the most sacred symbols of religious language.

9.      Historically, Baptists have been among the foremost proponents of the separation of religion and government.   Theologically, this conviction derives from the belief that liberty of conscience is prerequisite for the personal decision and commitment from which Baptists believe sincere faith grows.  Politically, this belief stems from their experience of persecution for their faith by both the English Crown and by the established church governments of Colonial America.   In distinction from nearly every other Christian denomination, the earliest Baptists were insistent that liberty of conscience be secured for people of all faiths and people of no faith.   

While some Baptists now deny that church and state should be separate, many    Baptists and others like myself, continue to affirm the historic Baptist commitment to separation of church and state.   I believe posting a Ten Commandments monument on government property under sham secular pretenses serves to trivialize the holiness of sincere religious covenants and misappropriates a sacred religious symbol to endorse a diluted religiosity devoid of any transformative experience.

10.        I have observed the Ten Commandments monument at the Oklahoma State Capitol from both within and outside the Capitol building.  The placement of the monument makes viewing it unavoidable to any sighted person walking up and down the Northeast staircase of the Capitol building.   The monument gives me the impression that the Oklahoma state government endorses a certain form of religion.

I have met many people walking up and down that staircase whom I know to be people of other faiths and people of no faith.  People for whom both the U.S. Constitution and the Oklahoma State Constitution secure an equal right to freedom of religion and freedom from religion.  I believe posting the Ten Commandments monument before unwelcoming eyes on government property sends a message that such persons are looked down upon as second class citizens by their government.  I also believe that their irritation with the monument will serve to create unnecessary divisions and conflict within the community between them and people of conscientious and sincere covenantal faith. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Reproductive Biology and Hobby Lobby

Reproductive Biology and Hobby Lobby from Bruce Prescott on Vimeo.

Dr. Dana Stone, OB-GYN speaks about "Reproductive Biology and Hobby Lobby" at a forum sponsored by the Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice on August 6, 2014.

Monday, June 30, 2014

On the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby Decision (Updated)

I will be speaking at a press conference outside Hobby Lobby Store at 3160 S Broadway in Edmond at 7:30 PM this evening to object to the Supreme Court's decision today. At the moment, here is what I intend to say:

Today's Supreme Court decision, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, lacks common sense. It tramples on the religious liberty rights of real, flesh and blood, persons in order to extend religious liberty rights to corporate pseudo-persons.

The right to religious liberty is a fundamental HUMAN RIGHT. Corporations are legal constructs, not human beings. Common sense indicates that the religious convictions of profit-making corporate pseudo-persons should not trump the religious convictions of their real, flesh and blood, employees.

The conscience of employers should not trump the conscience of employees when personal decisions are made regarding the employees family planning, reproductive health and their ability to access FDA approved medications and contraceptives.

Those decisions are properly made by the employee in consultation with her family, her physician, and under the guidance of her own minister or spiritual advisor.

We need to begin working together to pass a Constitutional Amendment that will make it crystal clear that the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment only apply to persons who are human beings and do not apply to corporate pseudo-personages.