AU-Allied Clergy Advocate For Church-State Separation In N.C. And Va. Newspapers

Two clergy affiliated with Americans United recently placed opinion columns in local newspapers advocating for the separation of church and state.

In North Carolina, Charles Francis Wilson of Winston-Salem, a retired Southern Baptist minister and president of the Forsyth Chapter of Americans United, took to the pages of the Winston-Salem Journal to remind readers that government and religion shouldn’t mix.

Forsyth County has been the site of a legal battle over sectarian invocations before county commission meetings. Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina won a federal appeals court ruling striking down Forsyth’s prayer policy, which favored Christian prayer. The case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the high court has not yet announced if it will hear it.

“With steadfast determination, our founders created a new paradigm unlike any church and state arrangement in the world,” Wilson wrote. “There is no state religion, and all faiths have the same rights and privileges. The freedom I want and seek is the same freedom I want and seek for all people. The government is prohibited from favoring or disparaging any religion or non-religion. The above sentences reflect my interpretation of some of what freedom of religion means.

“We are a diverse nation populated with immigrants and children of immigrants from every continent in the world,” Wilson continued. “We are a diverse nation in terms of religious belief and practice. Respect and acceptance of all people regardless of race, social class, gender, sexual orientation or religion are high standards, but such high regard is a must in our concept and practice of freedom of religion.”

Writing in the Journal’s Dec. 25 edition, he criticized the “theocratic leanings of the Religious Right” and concluded, “When I think of the proper relationship between government and religion, there is little fear that government will aggressively seek to establish a religion. What I do fear is a religion seeking to establish a government.”

In Lynchburg, Va., Nathanael B. “Nick” Habel, also a retired Baptist minister, told readers of the News & Advance that during the 19th century, the Republican Party was strongly supportive of church-state separation and the public school system.

Habel pointed to a GOP gathering in Lynchburg in 1876 that affirmed religious liberty and public schools.

“Since 1939, I have spoken, written and helped to litigate on…behalf [of] ‘separation of church and state,’” Habel wrote. “Republicans believed in 1876 that religious freedom and the public schools were important forces for democracy. Their platform indicates that the forces of religion and government work best when free of aid or control of the other.

“They resolved: ‘We believe free schools to be the palladium of civil liberty, and that they should be supported by general taxation of the people and we are opposed to any division of the school money for the benefit of any sect or denomination whatever or to any interference with the schools by any sect or denomination.’ We denounce the action of the Democratic authorities of this State, by whom the money raised for free-school purposes has been taken for other purposes, thus robbing the children of the State of that will best fit them for becoming good citizens.’”

Observed Habel in the Dec. 11 News & Advance Forum, “I believe these principles, which the residents of Lynchburg once stood for, should not be forgotten when we prepare to vote for a candidate.”