Church/State Issues 2004     

Presentation by Leona Balek, Wisconsin Chapter President, Americans United for Separation of Church and State,
at Prairie Unitarian Universalist Society, Oct. 3, 2004

It is my great pleasure to be here at Prairie once again this morning. I’ve been here a time or two before during the 1990’s.  I’m a member of First Unitarian Society – so I’m feeling very much at home.

What is Americans United for Separation of Church & State? It is a 501(c)3 advocacy organization with an unwieldy name – but not as unwieldy as our original name which was “Protestants and Others United for Separation of Church & State.” We were founded in 1947 – by of all people – the Baptists – on the premise that separation between religion and government at all levels was best for religions as well as governments.  We are made up of people of all religious faiths (as well as those of no particular faith belief) and work on one issue only – church-state separation.  In this way, we are different from the ACLU, which has a much broader mandate of issues – of which church/state separation is only one.   Our current national Executive Director, the Rev. Barry Lynn, is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ as well as a lawyer.  Barry used to work for the ACLU and joined Americans United in the early 1990’s.  There are other organizations that advocate only for church/state separation.  The Interfaith Alliance, headed by the fabulous Baptist minister, G. Welton Gaddy, is made up of  only religious people, and Madison’s own Freedom From Religion is made up of mostly atheists and agnostics - are a couple of these organizations.  Americans United networks with all like-minded organizations on issues that we have in common – but, of course, because we are inclusive of religious believers and non-believers alike, we at Americans United like to think that we best reflect the population of the United States as a whole.  Our national office is in Washington, DC.

A small group of people in Madison began the Wisconsin Chapter of Americans United in 1996 - as a response to the increasing influence of the “religious right” that was entangling church and state in so many policies in government at all levels in the country and in Wisconsin.  Right now we are the only Americans United chapter in Wisconsin. We are an all-volunteer chapter, but Americans United does help us with our expenses

When the American colonies were started, nine of the thirteen colonies were essentially theocracies.  These communities were set up based on a particular Protestant Christian religious faith, with residents taxed to support that faith. Only Christians could hold public office and in practice, neither Jews nor Catholics were first-class citizens up to and including the time of the Revolution. Early advocates for church/state separation included Roger Williams, who was hounded out of Massachusetts and turned Rhode Island into a colony that guaranteed religious freedom – or as he called it, “soul liberty.”  He was the first to infer the phrase, “wall of separation between church and state” by warning against opening “a gap in the hedge, or wall of separation, between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”   Later, when the Founding Fathers were putting together the United States Constitution, after much argument and deliberation, they very purposely made no mention of religion in the document except in Article Six which reads, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”  Later, when the first ten amendments were written which we know as the Bill of Rights -  after several versions were argued, the religion clauses of Amendment One finally, after many versions and much heated discussion,  read,  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Today, these two clauses of text in the US Constitution are referred to as “the establishment clause” and “the free exercise clause.”  

However – the First Amendment applied only to the Federal Government and still left the individual states to write whatever they wanted into their own constitutions.  The result was essentially a Protestant religious establishment in many states, with all kinds of public tax support for religious activities.

This situation presumably changed with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War. This amendment makes the Bill of Rights binding on the states – the process known as “incorporation.”  However, the Fourteenth Amendment was more or less ignored by a succession of ultraconservative Supreme Courts in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  Finally, after the turn of the century, the legal tide began to change, and by 1940 the High Court ended all doubt that the states must abide by the entire Bill of Rights in the case of Cantwell v. Connecticut. Since then, people with civil liberties cases, including church/state cases, who had formerly been limited to state courts, could now seek redress in the federal court system.  And they did so.  Thus, there was and continues to be a dramatic spike in church-state cases and other types of civil liberties disputes in the federal courts after 1940. 

Wisconsin has one of the strongest “walls of separation” between church & state in its Constitution of 1848 of any state in the union.  In Article One, which is titled “Declaration of Rights,” Section 18 reads: “The right of every person to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of conscience shall never be infringed; nor shall any person be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry, without consent; nor shall any control of, or interference with, the rights of conscience be permitted, or any preference be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship; nor shall any money be drawn from the treasury for the benefit of religious societies, or religious or theological seminaries.”  Section 19 reads:  “No religious tests shall ever be required as a qualification for any office of public trust under the state, and no person shall be rendered incompetent to give evidence in any court of law or equity in consequence of his opinions on the subject of religion.”

(As an aside, to this day I wonder how, under the Wisconsin Constitution, we can be spending millions on vouchers for religious K-12 indoctrination in many choice program Milwaukee schools. Our dubiously elected state Supreme Court really had to stretch for that one…..)

What are our issues at Americans United right now in 2004?  On the national level, they are, broadly speaking:

    1. The President’s  “Faith-based Initiative” which results in Taxpayer-Funded Religious Discrimination

    2. Church Electioneering – endorsing political candidates from the pulpit

    3. Free Exercise of Religion Issues

    4. Marriage and Family Life Issues

    5. Religion in Public Life Issues

    6. Religion in the Public Schools – including curriculum issues such as the teaching of Creationism as Science

    7. Religious Symbols on Public Property

    8. Vouchers and other forms of Religious School Funding

    9. Judicial Nominations

The Americans United national web site ( keeps a running log of the most recent national issues titled, “Latest News.” A few items they listed this past week are:

1.  AU thinks the House vote on the Marriage Amendment is an Election Year Stunt – intended to give “election ammo” to the Religious Right. (The marriage amendment defines marriage as being only between a man and a woman.)

2.  AU urges churches to reject the biased Christian Coalition Voter Guides – in order to avoid partisan politicking that may result in the loss of the church’s tax exemption.

3.  AU condemns the House passage of the ‘Pledge Protection Act’ because it is a dramatic assault on individual rights.   This bill prohibits  federal courts from hearing legal challenges to the inclusion of the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance. (It is expected to die in the Senate.)

4.  AU condemns the passage by a Senate Committee of a sizable cash appropriation to restore and repair 21 historic California mission churches that are still owned by the Roman Catholic Church – and used for worship.

5.  Americans United strongly objected to the House Constitution subcommittee featuring a presentation by the disgraced, removed from office, Judge Roy Moore – of the Ten Commandments monument in the Alabama Supreme Courthouse fame.

These are just a few issues, of wildly varying importance, that Americans United has been looking at this past week.      

Now – what’s going on in Wisconsin? 

In my mind, the two biggest religious issues to come up Wisconsin this year are the Conscience Clause bills, and the Bishop Burke situation. The most egregious ongoing church/state issue is Milwaukee religious school voucher program commonly known as “The Milwaukee School Choice Program.”  Let’s look at these three Wisconsin issues.

First, the “Conscience Clause” bill.  According to the analysis by the Legislative Reference Bureau, AB 67 makes changes to current law regarding: 1. employment discrimination based on creed; 2. refusals of certain health care providers and hospital employees to participate in certain procedures on moral or religious grounds; and 3. duties of physicians regarding power of attorney for health care instruments and patient declarations authorizing the withholding or withdrawal of life-sustaining procedures or feeding tubes. It would also add pharmacists as protected workers.”  The bill would exempt from legal redress all these health care workers from lawsuits brought for their withholding of medical services based on religious belief. Both houses of the current state legislature passed this bill, but Governor Doyle vetoed it earlier this year saying, “I don’t believe medical care should depend on whether a medical practitioner has a problem with the treatment.”  This issue is dead for now, but you can be sure it will be brought up again if the political make-up of the legislature doesn’t change.  (Incidentally, Americans United does not take a position on the abortion issue, but does agree with Governor Doyle on the “conscience clause” legislation – which cover much broader issues. )

Another issue making many waves in Wisconsin recently is the brou-ha-ha regarding Bishop Raymond Burke, formerly of the La Crosse Diocese. Burke waded into politics with a decree that lawmakers who support abortion rights can no longer receive Holy Communion. Americans United’s Executive Director, Barry Lynn had this to say about Bishop Burke’s pronouncement:  “This is about as stark a decree to come down against Catholic politicians as we’ve seen in recent history.  The problem with it is that elected officials have to represent people of all faiths and none, and not adhere to one religious demand like the bishop’s.” (We thought this was settled with the election of John F. Kennedy.)  Personally, I find it interesting that abortion is the ONLY issue Bishop Burke mentioned.  He said nothing about the Catholic church’s position on the death penalty, the Iraq war, or other social justice issues which the current political powers support.  The American Bishops have since met to consider this issue – and have come out with a policy that leaves wide latitude for bishops to enforce this policy – but the issue is far from dead within the Catholic Church – with conservative priests, bishops, lawyers and lay people urging a very tough stand – including excommunication. 

The issue I consider the most important church/state issue in Wisconsin is the Milwaukee School Choice program. This program began in 1990, and since the late 90’s when religious schools were added to the mix by our state Supreme Court, gives most of the state tax dollars it receives from ALL Wisconsin taxpayers to religious schools.  Last year, 13,268 children were enrolled in the program, which was funded 45% by reduction in state aid to the Milwaukee Public Schools and 55% from state general purpose revenue. That means that 55% of the almost $79 million dollars it is costing this year are dollars coming from all taxpayers in Wisconsin to fund religious indoctrination – which is the primary purpose of any religiously-affiliated school.  Our conservative legislature passed two bills this year to expand the cap on the number of students eligible for the program, to increase the income level of their parents for continuing eligibility, and to expand the geographical area covered to include all of Milwaukee County.  Governor Doyle wisely vetoed these bills.  Recently, Governor Doyle has proposed to permit the number of eligible students to increase from 15% to 15 1/2% IF the choice schools agree to have their students take the same standardized tests as all Wisconsin Public School students must take.  Up to this point, there has been NO accountability in the measurement of achievement of the students in the private and religious schools in the choice program.  (We’ll see what happens to this legislation.) And of course, the choice program schools do not have to comply with the medieval strictures of the federal ‘No Child Left Behind’ federal rules – because they are private schools – even though our tax dollars are paying for them.)

Regarding religious school vouchers, please keep in mind that just because one U.S. Supreme Court decision said religious school vouchers are legal in Cleveland does not mean that ANY school district must agree to institute such a program.  That is up to the voters and the local School Board of any area.  Also regarding vouchers – in the 25 referenda since 1966 across the country where voters have been allowed a voice in the institution of these programs, they have ALL been soundly defeated – except for one in South Dakota in 1966 where they agreed to pay for private school textbooks only. All other voucher efforts have been passed legislatively, with an overtly political agenda.  

Other contentious church/state issues crop up regularly in this state – such as the Ten Commandments monument in the LaCrosse public park,  requiring all public and private school students either to say the Pledge of Allegiance or sing The National Anthem each day, the use of Police Chaplains to provide security for Presidential campaign events, etc., etc. – issues which we keep on top of as best we can. However, new issues keep surfacing with regularity in our legislature as it is presently constituted politically.  This situation keeps us on our toes – and we keep on working to keep religion and government separate here in the Badger state. 

With that I’ll close, except to say that if you or someone you know would like a speaker for any religious, community organization or group of people anywhere in the State on the subject of Church/State issues, we provide a free service.  There are several issue brochures and copies of our monthly magazine, Church & State, on the table for you to help yourself to if you’re interested. If you have any questions, I’ll be glad to talk to you after the service concludes. 

 Thank you for inviting me here today.

Closing Words


1.  What role should and do your religious faith and values play in creating public policy?

2.  What are your views on the Constitutional guarantee of the separation of church and state?

3.  What active steps have you taken and will you continue to take to show respect for the variety of religious beliefs among your constituents?

4.  Should a political leader’s use of religious language reflect the language of his/her religious tradition or be more broadly inclusive?

5.  How do you balance the principles of your faith and your pledge to defend the Constitution, particularly when the two come into conflict?

(Thanks to the Interfaith Alliance for these thoughts.)