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EDITORIAL

Useful debates on the separation of church and state

Friday, July 5, 2013 - 12:01 am

They remind us of how truly free we are in the United States.

It was 1989 when the Supreme Court decreed that a Nativity scene inside a government building violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and 1948 when it said religious instruction in a public school was a violation. To this day, we’re can’t decide exactly where to draw that line separating church from state.

We seem particularly confused in Indiana, as two cases illustrate. At Ball State University, instructor Eric Hedin is accused of teaching a class that is religion disguised as science. Called “Boundaries of Science,” it explores the nature of the universe. In Evansville, some businesses have offered alternative spots for 30 life-sized crosses after a lawsuit was filed against the city’s plan to allow the display on public land along the Ohio River.

In the Hedin case, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist organization, has filed a formal objection with the university contending that the professor’s course is “a one-sided monologue by a government-paid employee whose agenda is to show that science proves the truth of religion – in this case one particular religion, Christianity.” The university has a convened a panel of professors to investigate.

Even if Hedin does include some religious advocacy with his science lectures, if seems fair to ask how that really constitutes a government “establishing” a religion. Nobody is being coerced into believing anything, let alone behaving in a certain way.

In the Evansville case, it is not the city putting up the crosses, but the West Side Christian Church. The city is merely giving the church permission to use public land for the project, which involves the crosses being decorated by children attending a vacation Bible school. Does that really amount to a government favoring a particular religion, or is Evansville trying to accommodate religion in general? That’s something the Constitution does not forbid.

It is tempting to tell all these people to chill out. The First Amendment also gives people the right to “freely exercise” their religious beliefs, and the overly zealous pursuit of our “freedom from religion” prerogative steps all over that right.

But such debates are a useful reminder of how truly free we are here and how wise it is to be very careful about how we mix church and state. We can see the dangers of not doing that every day throughout the volatile and oppressive Middle East, where religion and government are as one. No dictatorship on Earth can be as brutal and unyielding to the popular will as a rigidly orthodox theocracy.