My time at Americans United comes to an end next week. I've learned a lot in my three years here, but the one thing I still cannot understand is why the Religious Right flat-out lies.
They lie about everything: Chuck Colson says the State of Iowa forced his Prison Fellowship Ministries to take public funding; The Alliance Defense Fund constantly accuses Americans United of reporting pastors to the IRS for discussing political issues; TV preacher Pat Robertson says AU Executive Director Barry Lynn wouldn't let a municipal fire department douse a burning church; they all say there's no such thing as separation of church and state.
Part of me, the part that answers AU's e-mail, thinks most Religious Right supporters accept the spin as fact without a second thought. A lot of Americans don't dig as deeply into issues as we should.
A much larger part thinks this is a calculated fund-raising campaign. Supporters with a strong emotional connection to the issue are, after all, more likely to send money. I find it very difficult to believe Religious Right leaders really buy all the misinformation they churn out.
I'm pretty sure, for example, our friends at Focus on the Family know how to read. Yet, their latest "Stoplight" video clip completely misrepresents a recent federal court ruling on prayer in the public schools.
To make a long story short: For 23 years, high school football coach Marcus Borden organized and led student athletes in prayer at team events. He successfully sued the school after he was told to stop encouraging or participating in students' religious activities.
An appeals court overturned Borden's win, finding that the district's policy didn't impinge on his constitutionally protected rights. Indeed, the court concluded the policy was necessary to preserve both church-state separation and students' religious freedom.
Standing on stadium bleachers, CitizenLink managing editor Stuart Shepard says as he bows his head: "Here, watch this: I'm gonna break the law! Gasp!"
Tweeet! "Personal prayer! 10 yard [penalty]" the whistle-blowing referee says.
It's pretty clear FOF wants people to think the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' unanimous decision in Borden v. School District of the Township of East Brunswick banned any public religious expression.
Nothing could be farther from reality. The Court "[found] that, based on the history of Borden's conduct with the team's prayers, his acts cross the line and constitute an unconstitutional endorsement of religion."
The ruling, says Shepard, "would appear to mean that if [Borden] just happens to be kneeling, like coaches often do, and somebody begins to pray he would be required by law to stand up, turn up his nose, maybe even turn his back and walk away."
No, Stuart. It doesn't mean that. It means that this coach has "organized, participated in, and led prayer activities with his team on numerous occasions for twenty-three years...[and] a reasonable observer would conclude that he is continuing to endorse religion when he bows his head...and takes a knee with his team...while they pray."
Borden can't encourage or participate in students' voluntary religious activities, but he can stand there respectfully (and even say a prayer to himself!) while they pray.
Shepard ends with a snarky comment on the school district's reason for appealing the case. Shepard tells us that "a school official said 'the district pursued this case to protect children.'"
"On behalf of all Americans," Shepard remarks, "I would like to thank the judge and the school officials for protecting America's vulnerable students from any role model who might affirm that there's something higher than government."
Again, did Shepard not bother to read the full statement or did he just not like what it said?
Superintendent JoAnn Magistro's statement actually said: "The district pursued this case to protect children who could not protest pressure to participate in religious activities at school events.... Every student is a valued member of our community and their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, can never be used to separate them from their peers and teammates. I want to make sure the community understands that our students will continue to be allowed to voluntarily pray when, where, and as they wish. This decision deals only with District employees' ability to participate in religious activities with students."
On behalf of all Americans who value church-state separation, I would like to thank the judge and the school officials for protecting these students' religious liberties and recognizing that a public school teacher is not a religious advisor.
I'll miss a lot of things when I leave AU next week. Dealing with the Religious Right's pathological lying isn't one of them.