Uncommon Courage

Church-State Champions Discuss Personal Battles To Defend Individual Rights

The First Freedom First simulcast, “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Separation of Church and State…But Were Afraid to Ask,” wasn’t all just music, laughs and entertainment.

The nationwide broadcast, viewed in 37 theaters across the country on March 26, featured well-known television and movie stars, singers and comedians. But the most compelling part of the event may have been the individual Americans who talked about how their personal lives have been affected by battles over church-state separation.

Most of the speakers, who were selected based on their ties to the eight First Freedom First core topics, sat down for informal interviews with host Peter Coyote, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn and Interfaith Alliance Foundation President C. Welton Gaddy.

The stories they told reminded viewers that these issues are in no way abstract. They affect millions of Americans. Some of them, such as End-of-Life Care, will eventually touch every person.

Here is a round-up of those guests with some of the personal reflections they offered during the event:

Academic Integrity – Bryan and Christie Rehm: The Rehms were among several residents of Dover, Pa., who challenged the teaching of “intelligent design” (ID) in public schools. They served as plaintiffs in a landmark lawsuit, brought by Americans United and its allies, that found the teaching of ID, the latest variant of creationism, unconstitutional.

“There was a slow and gradual change that occurred on the school board over a number of years,” Bryan Rehm said. “People got in for issues other than science curriculum, and then they had their final wave. They started telling teachers, first in the Science Department, ‘You will rewrite the biology curriculum, and we want creationism in it.’ And then they went from all-out creationism replacing evolution to 50-50. The Science Department fought this over two years internally before it went public.”

Christie Rehm added, “Intelligent Design is actually pseudo-science. It’s a theory that is trying to debunk evolution, basically. So we have a repackaging of creationism. All Intelligent Design stands to do is debunk evolution, so it’s a negative argument. It creates a false dichotomy between science and religion, which basically says only one of them is true, and you must choose which one to believe.”

Worship…Or Not – Susan Jacoby: Susan Jacoby, the author of The Age of American Unreason, is a best-selling author and outspoken atheist. Jacoby debunked the frequent Religious Right claim that the First Amendment protects only freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.

“Our Constitution couldn’t state it more clearly: There shall be no religious test for public office,” Jacoby said. “It’s not, ‘There shall be no religious test as long as you’re a Christian or as long as you believe in God.’ There has been a concerted attempt by the Religious Right at the highest levels to rewrite this history.”

She continued, “I am not distrustful of people of faith like Barry and Welton. I’m not distrustful of anyone who protects my rights as well as their own….What I am distrustful of are people, basically, on the far, extremist Christian right, who want their values and their beliefs to apply to me – or for that matter to Barry and Welton, whose beliefs they don’t like very much either.”

No Religious Discrimination – Roberta Stewart: Roberta Stewart’s husband, Sgt. Patrick Stewart, was killed in combat in Afghanistan in September of 2005 when his Chinook helicopter was shot down. The Department of Veterans Affairs refused to put a pentacle, the symbol of the Stewarts’ Wiccan faith, on his memorial marker. Roberta Stewart, backed by Americans United, sued. To settle the case, officials in the department agreed to add the pentacle to its list of approved religious symbols.

“Patrick was my everything,” Stewart said in taped remarks. “I decided to fight because I decided if I didn’t, I felt that it made our love not as valid, and I wasn’t willing to accept that. Nor was I willing to accept discrimination. We took our vows underneath the pentacle, on our altar; the pentacle was a huge part of our lives. Every special moment in our life, there was a pentacle present. And there would be one on my husband’s headstone.”

In a follow-up interview with Coyote, Lynn and Gaddy, Stewart said she regrets nothing about battling the federal government. She noted that President George W. Bush even called her to apologize after she was left out of a meeting with family members of deceased veterans.

“My husband was a military man,” she said. “There was no way [he would forget] his brothers on the front line, his Pagan brothers, his Wiccan friends. I had to fight and continue to litigate.”

Reproductive Health – Susan Wicklund: Wicklund is a physician who provides reproductive-health services to underserved women in rural areas of Montana and other Plains states. She has been harassed and threatened so much that she now wears a bullet-proof vest and often carries a gun. She is the author of the book This Common Secret.

“Very few people understand that almost 40 percent of women in this country – almost 40 percent in this country – will have an abortion at some point in their reproductive lives,” Wicklund said. “So it is anything but rare. It is incredibly common. And yet when we don’t talk about it, it becomes this common secret. And we need to destroy the secret, we need to talk about it.”

Wicklund discussed what motivates her to continue her work, even in the face of such extreme harassment.

“When we have someone telling us that this is killing a baby or however they term it, and therefore we believe this so nobody else can have an abortion, that is ridiculous,” she said. “This is not anything that should be discussed in the churches or in the courts. It should be between a woman and her physician.”

Sound Science – Michael J. Fox: Fox, a popular actor of television and film, warned against allowing religious pressure groups to impede medical research.

“I’m not an expert on the United States Constitution,” Fox said. “But I have tremendous faith in the ability of the American people, working together, to create a future that’s better for everyone. Religion can be a huge part of that. In my life, faith has offered a tradition of asking questions rather than stoking fear, by accepting that there are many ways to see the world rather than excluding those who see things differently. But when religion becomes focused on judgment, fear and dogma, we miss critical opportunities to learn.”

End-of-Life Care – Jack Klugman: Jack Klugman discussed how his disgust over the Terri Schiavo controversy in 2005 spurred him to activism. He was appalled when Religious Right groups prodded Congress to intervene in the case of a Florida woman who was in a persistent vegetative state.

Klugman talked about his reasons for endorsing First Freedom First.

“I did the spot mostly because I’m more at the end of my life than I am at the beginning, and I wanted to make a stand,” he said. “I did it because I believe. I hear the news, and I throw things at the set, I curse and I yell. I felt I couldn’t do anything, I felt helpless. But now I’m not helpless. I can do something and I am doing something. I believe in it, so I’m taking a stand.”

Academic Integrity – Matthew LaClair: Last year, Matthew LaClair, then a high school junior in Kearny, N.J., challenged a history teacher who was proselytizing for fundamentalist Christianity in class. Instructor David Paszkiewicz told students that Earth is 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs were on Noah’s ark. He also told them that those who don’t accept Jesus belong in hell.

LaClair taped some of these sermons and shared them with school administrators. When officials failed to take appropriate action, the student filed a lawsuit. As part of a settlement, experts were brought in to educate students and teachers about church-state law and the differences between science and religion.

Unfortunately, LaClair says there may still be problems in Paszkiewicz’s class.

“He’s still teaching U.S. history class, and I have heard from some students – the ones that will still speak to me – that he has continued to do what he did,” LaClair said. “He continues to preach during class. At this point, I really can’t do anything else regarding that particular issue. And I tell the students, ‘It’s in your hands now; it’s up to the students now….’ We have to start actually standing up for separation of church and state because it’s so important.”

Respect for All Families – Catie Curtis: Catie Curtis, a folk singer and Massachusetts resident who lives in a same-sex marriage, discussed the difference a legal marriage has made for her family.

“With my children, I really love being able to say to them, ‘Your moms are married, just like your friend’s parents.’ And it helps them to understand that although our family looks different, we’re safe, they’re secure and we’re a family unit,” Curtis said.

Democracy, Not Theocracy – David and Ryan Antoon: David Antoon and his son Ryan helped expose inappropriate fundamentalist Christian influences at the U.S. Air Force Academy. David is a graduate of the Academy and a retired Air Force officer. Ryan had intended to attend the Academy but decided not to after experiencing the atmosphere there.

“We went to the chapel,” said Ryan Antoon, recalling his visit. “In front of us stood about 10 evangelical preachers bragging about how they had a majority percentage of the cadet wing attending Bible study on Monday nights and how they wanted to increase those numbers with my incoming class. It was just one thing after another. This place is supposed to be one of the premier leadership training grounds in the country. I heard the word ‘leader’ a couple of times while I was out there. It was almost completely replaced with the word ‘warrior.’”

Added David Antoon, “There’s been a tremendous ethical shift. For instance, the Air Force did an investigation of the religious issues at the Air Force Academy, and it was pretty much whitewashed…. In the ’90s they had a code of ethics that stated that no professional or commander will attempt to change or coercively influence the religious beliefs of their subordinates. And in ’05, the Secretary of the Air Force came out with a new code of ethics…which allowed proselytization in the military.”

Democracy, Not Theocracy – Melinda Maddox: Melinda Maddox, an attorney, was one of the plaintiffs in the legal challenge against former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who displayed a two-and-a-half-ton Ten Commandments monument in a judicial building in 2001. During the litigation, her house was vandalized, her legal practice was boycotted and she received numerous threats.

“I drove into the driveway, and all the windows were shot out of my house,” Maddox recalled. “And within days of that, somebody had killed some of the squirrels in my yard and had started hanging them from some of my trees in my front yard. Over the next several months, there were letter-writing campaigns organized through different groups. I got hundreds of letters some days. There were e-mail campaigns from all over….There were phone calls day and night, my office, my home. The colleagues I had didn’t want to work with me.”

Asked if she would do it all over again, Maddox did not hesitate.

“Yes,” she said. “Of course I’d have to do it again. If I don’t stand up, who will? I can’t ask someone to sacrifice if I’m not willing to do that.”