Preserving America’s Noble Experiment

An Interview With Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, President Of The AU Board Of Trustees

This is a longer version of the Merrill Shapiro interview that appeared in the print edition of the February Church & State.

At the November meeting of the Americans United Board of Trustees, Rabbi Merrill Shapiro was elected president. Shapiro, congregational rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Palm Coast, Fla., is a long-time AU chapter activist. He is the first rabbi to serve as president of Americans United. We recently asked Shapiro his thoughts about religion and government and what we need to do to preserve religious liberty in the United States.

Q: Why is church-state separation so important to you?

A: We often lose sight of the fact that America is a grand and noble experiment. One of the elements of that experiment was the creation of what Abraham Lincoln would later call “government of the people, by the people and for the people.” Another element was to create a country in which there was no government-established religion. The reasons were many but, for me, an established religion places one particular theology, one way of thinking about God, in a superior position, leaving other theologies, other ways of thinking, in a subordinate position. Why should the government regard one way of thinking about God to be better or worse than another way of thinking about God or even not thinking about God at all?

Q: Historically, the Jewish community – a minority faith group – has been strongly supportive of church-state separation. Is that still important today?

A: It’s perhaps even more important today, with the rise of those who feel it their duty to make certain we all believe the same thing and share a common vision of God. For some reason, persuasion and the use of their own resources seem to them insufficient to achieve a lockstep way of thinking about God. Their own resources being deemed by them to be insufficient, they seek to employ the government – our government, my government, for which I and so many others who think differently pay taxes to create, support and sustain!

I believe strongly that those groups have every right to try to get Jews to convert to Christianity. For evangelicals as an example, that is an activity protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution. But to use the resources for which Jews have paid, our governmental entities to whom we send our tax dollars, seems to me to be dishonest. If their arguments for seeing God as they do are valid and true, it would seem to me they should be effective at persuading us without the use of the resources of our governments.

Q: How did you first get involved with Americans United?

A: At the end of February, 1998, at an Oneg Shabbat (sort of a “fellowship hour” following Friday evening worship) at my Congregation Beth Am in Longwood, Fla., about a dozen 12- and 13-year-olds cornered me and said “Did you hear what happened at Teague Middle School today?” I admitted ignorance, and they began to tell their tale.

It was the conclusion of what was then called “Black History Month,” and the school administration had arranged for a school-wide assembly to sum up what they had learned. Interestingly, especially from our vantage point here in the early weeks of 2010, Tiger Woods was to make an appearance. (As is well-known now, he has a house in our community.) But, at the last minute, Woods had to be in Miami. The staff met in the morning to decide on an alternative or to cancel the assembly. Finally, one of the teachers suggested that the student club he was advising take over the assembly.

The club, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, came into the center stage in the gymnasium during the last period on Friday and proceeded to present a wonderful cheerleading program with song and dance. It was wonderful, at least, until they came to a cheer that told the students who were gathered in the gym, “We need to bring Jesus into our school.” The young Jewish children were taken aback but, as they looked around the room, they were the only ones. The cheers went on. “Those who don’t believe in Jesus are poisoning our school! Those who don’t believe in Jesus are poisoning America!” This has some echoes relating to the Holocaust, echoes that were not lost on some of the students. Some of those telling me this story spoke of attempting to get out of their seats and leave only to be met in the aisle by a teacher who told them to “Sit down!” Some heard teachers say, “Sit down! You (as a non-Christian) especially need to hear this!” One student told of putting her fingers in her ears only to be told by a teacher how impolite that was.

Even today, I can see the eyes and the faces of those young people. I can point to the spot in our social hall where this conversation took place. How could I abandon these young people? How could I not plead their cause?

I admit, in the past, I had told myself and others that we are a minority in a country with a Christian majority, and we should best keep quiet and maintain a low profile, an attitude that wells forth from some 2,000 years of Jewish history. At the same time, I kept telling myself that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. Our Jewish tradition tells us, in a Talmudic section called Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, that “it is not for us the finish the job – but neither are we free to walk away from it either!” Something had to be done.

By Monday afternoon, one administrator had been fired and two others reassigned. I was invited to lead some sensitivity training for Seminole County school faculty and staff. Later that week, the school board itself apologized. That offended not only Rev. John Butler Book, a prominent clergyman in the area with whom I got into a shouting match both in the school board chambers and out in the parking lot, but also Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel who quickly filed suit against the school board for allegedly violating the Free Exercise rights of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Being a non-confrontational sort, I was out of my comfort zone from the start of this episode, but at this point I knew I was in over my head! Everywhere I went to do research and look for help opened up a door to a hallway at the other end of which was a building on C Street N.E. in our nation’s capital, the offices of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. There I found the people who have encountered this sort of thing before, knew what they were doing and could help us find our voices without making this a Jewish-Christian issue, but rather an issue on the intellectual meaning of the First Amendment to our U.S. Constitution.

I had heard of AU before, sent in some dues money and then went on to be busy with my family, my work, my community. When I came to see what the AU staff knew and what they could do, I knew that this was an organization to which I could become and have become deeply devoted. 

Q: Florida has seen some intense church-state battles recently. In 2008, former Gov. Jeb Bush even tried to delete two state constitutional provisions barring tax aid to religious schools and other ministries. What was that all about?

A: Gov. Bush (who doesn’t take “defeat” for an answer) was trying to help private religious schools obtain tax money to support their work. First, he wanted to use state funds, your tax dollars and mine, to take students out of “non-performing” public schools and send them to private religious schools. Then he wanted to be able to use state scholarships to send students to seminaries around the state.

Thanks to AU State Legislative Counsel Dena Sher and others on the staff of our Legislative Department, we found out what was going on at an obscure board created to meet once every 20 years and review the budget of the state. At the behest of Gov. Bush, these budget board members attempted to put on our state ballot language that would have permitted state funds to go to religious schools and institutions. (I don’t know how the Legislative Department finds all these obscure goings-on in 50 states and still keeps tabs on the federal government. I think our five staff members in that department are hiding 75 others somewhere in the basement. It seems as though they do the work of about 80 people.)

We did a great deal of work to set up an organization to defeat the ballot amendments. We were registered, had a mailing address, established officers, chose a name and “girded our loins to go out and do battle.”

Q: You and another Florida AU activist (and Baptist minister), the Rev. Harry Parrott, served as plaintiffs in the 2008 lawsuit filed by AU and our allies that knocked Bush’s constitutional amendments off the ballot. How did that come about?

A: Dena called and asked me to be a plaintiff in an action against the state. Now my upbringing, once again, was to be non-confrontational, lay low and keep quiet. Everything I knew said don’t do this, and I followed through on that for about 25 seconds and then jumped at the chance. Willing plaintiffs are sometimes hard to find, and I had seen people get death threats for their stand on behalf of the Establishment Clause.

I went up to Tallahassee for the announcement of the lawsuit at a press conference. I made a statement and was quoted throughout the South as saying “I don’t want to be required to pay with my taxes for an education that teaches students that, as a Jew, I am going to hell, I have no access to salvation and I am guilty of killing God.”

In the end, the Florida Supreme Court found in favor of our arguments that this once-in-every-20-years budget review commission had far exceeded its authority. While we won, there was a bit of “post-partum depression,” after we had done so much to organize! But we were gratified. The courts don’t always get things right – but this time they did!

Q: In 2009, Florida state senators pushed for special license plates with sectarian themes. One proposed plate was even supposed to feature a depiction of the crucified head of Jesus, complete with a crown of thorns! What was AU’s response?

A: We marshaled a great many voices to make calls to legislators about this plate and another. In the end, level heads prevailed and the plate did not pass through the legislative process.

In this upcoming 2010 Florida legislative session, the decision has been made simply not to consider new license plate proposals. However, because it was introduced last year, the crucified head of Jesus license plate, complete with crown of thorns, can be considered. We’ll be watching carefully – but not nearly as carefully as our AU legislative staff in Washington. Again, how they find these things out is, for me, one of life’s great mysteries!

As an aside, I would love to see AU take the offense on these license plates around the country and push for license plates that celebrate the separation of church and state. All too often we become, in the eyes of our detractors, the naysayers, the “no” organization. Such moves would give us a chance to organize ourselves and speak with powerful voices on an issue where we say “yes”!

Q: Also last year, Florida Sen. Ronda Storms put forward a bill promoting officially sanctioned prayer in public schools. You and other clergy affiliated with Americans United wrote a joint letter to the legislature’s Education Committee to oppose the measure, and the bill died. Do you think legislators were surprised to hear from clergy who “oppose school prayer”?

A: Yes, I believe that some legislators were surprised. Some legislators stand ready to paint Americans United and those who join their voices to ours as “tools of Satan!” That’s a bit hard to do when clergy speak out on these issues.

There are many issues on which all of us must be heard. But some issues require clergy voices. It’s great to have that so well understood by AU Field Director Beth Corbin and by the Rev. Steven Baines, AU’s clergy organizer.

Everyone knows that the freethinkers, atheists, agnostics and their friends are against public prayer that so often becomes coercive in school settings. But when clergy speak out, it is heard a little differently!

Q: The American experiment in separation of religion and government has been wildly successful. Thanks to the First Amendment, thousands of religious traditions operate freely in America without government interference. Americans can join one of those traditions or choose to follow no faith at all. If separation has worked so well, why are we still fighting battles over the issue?

A: I am reminded of the scenarios described by Rena Levin, formerly of our Field Department, who was often assigned to speak with groups who visited AU’s Capitol Hill offices from other countries. In a bit of an exasperated voice, she would declare “separation of church and state – they just don’t get it!” Church-state separation is unique to our country and should be a source of great pride.

So special is it that even many Americans don’t get it. Some of them say, “Ninety-five percent of Americans are Christians. We are a Christian country!” I believe that there is a mutant form of Christianity that – rather than loving their fellow non-Christian Americans as Jesus calls them to love even their enemies – will love us only if we think and believe as they do and regard us as tools of Satan if we do not believe as they do. Sadly, these people have become bold, loud and well-organized and seek to use the powers of the government to get everyone to think as they do. Ironically, at one and the same time, they decry congressional pork and the power of special interests, yet want to use the powers of the government to convert us to their understanding of Christianity! It doesn’t make sense to me!

Q: What can ordinary Americans do to stand up for church-state separation?

A: When we see violations, it is perfectly natural for our “fight or flight” responses to become active. Flight is almost always the easiest and simplest route to follow. Over time, however, if we flee from the same battle repeatedly, those who take up the fight against our First Amendment guarantees become emboldened, heartened, strengthened. I believe they look for new fields into which to bring their fight, their crusade, to expand their attacks on First Amendment principles.

So, the first step for ordinary Americans is to speak up – and if they do not wish to speak up, to inform Americans United who will take up the battle on their behalf. If we do nothing, if we abdicate our principles, we’ll get what we deserve. I believe ordinary Americans must, each and every day, stop for a moment of quiet and listen for the voices of the founders of our great country. Those voices speak to us from across the centuries and have great relevancy to us today, right here and right now in 21st-century America. We need to remain true to those voices and dedicated to making sure all Americans hear them today. Ordinary Americans must learn to filter out the voices of the historical revisionists who believe our country was founded on religious principles for it simply is not so! Ordinary Americans have a powerful voice in Americans United and should be supporting our work. 

Q: You’ve been involved with AU’s chapter network for many years. How important is a local presence to the separationist cause?

A: I’m a big fan of the late House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s understanding that “All politics is local!” I have seen instances where the efforts of our AU National Office have been countered out in the field by those who say we shouldn’t be listening to “those who are out of touch, living within the Washington, D.C., Beltway.” While there may or may not be merit to this argument, it is the work of the chapters that is paramount. It is the work of local people on the ground that is most important.

I so wanted to get involved in church-state battles such as the South Carolina license-plate case, the Baltimore Baptist Bible-distribution scheme, the New Jersey high school football team prayer meeting and more. But anyone I could contact would simply label me a Floridian meddling in business where I simply didn’t belong. No South Carolina, Maryland, or New Jersey elected official is interested in hearing from me – I don’t and can’t vote against them. But the voices of constituents ring loud and true in their ears. It is the local people who need to speak up.

One note here – and there are two ways in which I can and do get involved in these distant cases. First, I support Americans United and, second, I try to send an email or drop a note or make a telephone call to our plaintiffs, our whistleblowers, who speak out on these issues and those who have called our attention to attempted breaches in the wall of separation. An encouraging word from afar is always appreciated – and tells that person that the work they are doing has meaning and significance not only in their own neighborhood, their own town, their own county and their own state, but to all of us who pledge our allegiance to the republic for which our flag stands! I have become fond of telling people that hundreds of millions of Americans are indebted to them – even if those hundreds of millions Americans have no idea who it is fighting for them in the arena of church-state separation.

Q: Are there any other points you’d like to make?

A: All those who support AU are owed a debt of gratitude by hundreds of millions of Americans who have no idea who we are and what we do! I would love it if all the readers of Church & State would make sure that the name “Americans United for Separation of Church and State” is known around their town.

The defense of the First Amendment does not come cheap! It takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears – well, sweat and tears, anyway. All of us who make donations and share the costs of fighting cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, MS and a host of diseases, need, as well, to help the work of Americans United. I’m proud to be a Guardian – committed to donating $1,000 each year to the work of AU – and I am proud to serve as president of an AU Board of Trustees whose members have been so generous not only with their time, effort, energy and attention, but with their checkbooks as well. I hope we can find many more people who will be generous in paying the bills that entitle us to a top-notch defense of the wall of separation that was so important to Thomas Jefferson and our entire nation.

I’ve put off long enough the most difficult of tasks – of putting in words what our AU staff means to our board, our National Advisory Council, our country, our states, our counties, our communities and our families. Those of us who know them admire them with boundless admiration and call them our friends, teachers and fearless leaders! There are students in kindergarten classes being made to feel like second-class citizens because they are not part of the majority religion, there are good citizens who attend public meetings where an invocation tells them they really count for less than the people around them. There are job-seekers denied positions because of their religious beliefs, citizens discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, women denied medical procedures because they violate someone else’s religious sensitivities.

When this becomes known, our staff, for whom it is clear that their positions are far from merely “jobs,” mount their trusty steeds and with swords and lances go forth to do battle for the very values that make America great. They have great sway in the halls of Congress and in our courts, and their footsteps seem to be heard in every corner of our land. It seems to me that we can never adequately thank or even support AU Executive Director Barry Lynn and the handful of staff in our national office whose voices are mighty in our land!