A Florida pastor thinks he has the solution to reducing theft in the United States, and it has nothing to do with law enforcement.

As far as the Rev. Garry Wiggins of Evangel Temple Assembly of God in Jacksonville is concerned, school-age children are being prevented from learning basic morals – including that theft is wrong – because of the pesky constitutional principle of church-state separation.

“When you take moral codes, spiritual codes, Ten Commandments out of children's lives and they aren’t taught ‘Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not kill,’ they eventually raise up a generation where those principles don’t mean anything to them,” Wiggins told News 4 JAX recently.

Wiggins added that he would never break the law “because I was brought up in a culture of ‘Thou shalt not steal.’”

These comments came in response to the recent theft of about $15,000 worth of equipment from Wiggins’ church, including a golf cart and lawn-care tools. While Wiggins is rightfully upset about the incident, his proposed solution is way off base.

School-age children are not prevented from learning morality in the classroom simply because of the existence of the First Amendment. After all, moral codes against stealing and other wrong doing pre-date the Bible and are hardly unique to Judaism and Christianity. There are plenty of ways to teach children that stealing is wrong without framing the discussion with religion. Public schools manage to impart secular morality lessons all the time.

Rod Sullivan, a professor at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, agreed that religion is not required to explain to kids why stealing is wrong.

“Clearly there are people that believe there should be a complete secularism of public schools and there are other people that believe religious concepts need to be taught, but all religions have basically the same code of ethics,” Sullivan told News 4 JAX. “There is nothing wrong with the public schools teaching what is right and what is wrong and teaching about ethics and morality. The only thing they can’t do is attach it to a certain religion. If they’re teaching about morality and not talking about Christian morality, it’s absolutely fine.”  

Plus, who knows where the thieves who stole from Wiggins’ church stand on theology? They could easily be Christians – even members of Evangel Temple Assembly of God. Wiggins certainly cannot say for sure that those who burglarized his church have no knowledge of the Ten Commandments.  

Sadly, Wiggins’ words are pretty typical of fundamentalists who look upon the ills of the United States and prescribe religion as the ideal treatment for a variety of societal ailments. From theft to mass murder to declining church attendance, the Religious Right and its allies frequently say church-state separation is to blame.

Of course the reality is there was never a time when America was problem free. And pastors have been complaining about declining morals among Americans since the foundation of the United States. Sermons from plenty of late-18th and early-19th century clergy claimed this country was wicked and beyond redemption.

Few would argue that modern America is not experiencing some societal dysfunction, but why would the answer to those problems be to gut a critical aspect of the First Amendment? Church-state separation is an overwhelmingly positive force in this country because it guarantees freedom of conscience. It most certainly does not encourage people to violate the law.

It is not for Americans United to say how best crime can be prevented. But turning public schools into religious indoctrination centers is absolutely not the solution.