An old friend of mine from college, John Sparks, now a state senator in Oklahoma, was recently passing through Washington, D.C., and reached out.
After talking with John for a while about reproductive freedom, I changed the subject.
“I am hopeful that I will soon start working full time on the issue of church-state separation,” I said. “I bet I know how that one plays in Oklahoma and it’s not good. Am I right?”
“You’d be surprised,” John replied and then proceeded to tell me about a 2016 ballot initiative intended to allow a Ten Commandments monument on the capitol grounds – formally called State Question 790 (SQ 790). It had failed, 57 percent to 43 percent, in the same election in which Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton 65 percent to 29 percent in Oklahoma.
SQ 790 asked Oklahomans whether they wanted to strip Article 2, Section 5 from the Oklahoma Constitution. This provision prohibits taxpayer money from being used to support religious activity. Lawmakers had put SQ 790 on the ballot in response to the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s ruling that a government-sponsored Ten Commandments monument violated this provision of the state constitution. And Oklahomans rejected SQ790.
Surprised, I asked my friend for his thoughts on why this happened. He explained that churches had made it clear that freedom of religion was at stake. John connected me with the Rev. Lori Walke, associate minister at Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, so I could speak to her about it. Rev. Walke had grown up Southern Baptist and switched to the United Church of Christ after she befriended some of her basketball teammates at Oklahoma State University who happened to be lesbians. She felt that the teachings of UCC resonated much more with her values than those she had learned as a child from her Southern Baptist church.
I asked Rev. Walke to explain why she thought Oklahomans opposed the amendment.
“The message that people most responded to was that we don’t want to sell the church so cheap. That’s a really important argument and a universal value around here,” she explained. She went on to say that church-state separation ensures the independence of both government and houses of worship, so eliminating this protection in order for churches to get taxpayer dollars or religious monuments on government property would compromise the integrity of the church.
I’m featuring John, Rev. Walke and Oklahoma voters’ defeat of SQ 790 in my first Church & State column because together they represent the hope and optimism I have about our ability to win broadly on our issue, if we put time into educating Americans about the principles behind church-state separation and pause to figure out how to speak to different audiences in a language that will most powerfully resonate with them.
We need to remember that it’s not intuitive to everyone that separation of church and state is about religious freedom. We must remind people that despite our ideals, certain religions have held a special cultural status in our country (Christianity), and minority religions and atheism have often been disadvantaged.
We need to explain, as they did in Oklahoma, that entangling religion and government hurts even those who belong to the culturally dominant religion because it compromises churches’ integrity – as well as the Christian (and American) values of hospitality and equality.
We need to forge strong collaborations with communities of color, who know all too well the playbook where religion is used as a basis to discriminate. And we must continue to make clear how inextricably tied our issue is to so many others that are under attack today – including reproductive freedom, LGBTQ equality and racial justice – and continue to grow our coalitions to reflect this reality.
I am honored to be joining Americans United on the great shoulders of the Rev. Barry W. Lynn. I can’t imagine a more skilled or committed staff. I am excited to meet you all, hear about your reasons for proudly supporting and being members of Americans United and work side-by-side with you in this critical moment.
Together, we will stay true to our principles and find winning strategies. United, we will amass the power to win the hearts and minds of policymakers, the courts and importantly, our fellow citizens. With our beautiful medley of faces on full display, we will make clear what’s at stake.
We have a lot of work to do, but our diversity makes us unconquerable, and our voices carry the conviction of righteousness. We are on not just on the winning side of history. Our ideals are American history.
Rachel K. Laser is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.