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The church-state divide 

Last week I attended the annual meeting of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State at the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church.

Twelve people were there counting me. The president, James T. McCollum of Emerson, a teacher at Southern Arkansas University in Mag-nolia, told me with a grin that there were only six at last year’s annual meeting. Last week, he was re-elected for a second term and his wife, Betty, also a college teacher, was re-elected as treasurer. The Rev. Bob Klein, the Unitarian church’s minister, was elected secretary.

Besides the election of officers, the program consisted of the playing of a movie, “The Heart of the Beholder.” It was the true story of an honest young man in St. Louis who owned stores, and finally he was arrested and forced out of business by a prosecuting attorney who was supported by the religious right in that city. The young man escaped jail after the prosecuting attorney was found to be the biggest customer of the largest brothel in the city.

The influence of the neoconservatives in this country has doubled since President Bush took office and so there are now many more or-ganizations that are working to keep religion out of governments. Americans United is the largest, although it’s obviously not very big in Arkansas.

McCollum says more than 200 Arkansans are members of the national organization, but only about 50 have joined the state group. There’s been little written or broadcast about the organization, he says. While his home is not close to the center of the state’s journal-ists, he is very close to the thousands of conservative Baptists and other church members who like almost everything the Republican White House and the Congress do.

Throughout the country, the Unitarian Church has done the most to stop mixing politics and religion, but there are very few of them in this part of the country. However, the first president of Arkansas’s Americans United chapter was Rev. Arnold Nelson, who got the chapter going eight years ago when he was pastor of Pulaski Heights Christian Church. The president that followed was Rev. L.K. Solomon of Indiana Street Baptist Church in Pine Bluff.

Nationally, the issue most discussed in Washington is the attempt of the religious right to put people on the Supreme Court who would vote to force schools to do one of two things — stop teaching evolution (all species develop from earlier forms), or teach it and at the same time teach “intelligent design,” which is a new form of creationism that the Supreme Court has already turned down twice. Then the conservatives want the court to overturn the 1973 decision that said that women had the right to have an abortion.

But our first concern has to be what the religious right is trying to do in Arkansas. Forty-four members of the legislature this year voted down Rep. Buddy Blair’s resolution that would have affirmed Arkansas’s support of the separation of church and state.

During the last legislative session, Rep. Roy Ragland of Marshall, a Baptist preacher, sponsored a bill that says schools must have textbooks that said a man could only marry a woman and a woman could only marry a man.

Rep. Jeremy Hutchinson introduced a bill to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court and require that any woman under 18 get the consent of both parents to have an abortion.

Forty-one representatives and 14 senators sponsored a bill by Rep. Bill Pritchard that would allow students to lead prayer at public school functions. Of course, this is now prohibited by the U.S. and Arkansas constitutions.

The Arkansas Senate by one vote voted that women should not have the same rights as men, therefore defeating an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that has been an effort going on since 1972. Three-fourths of the state legislatures must approve the amendment before it goes on the Constitution. Believe it or not, three of the females in the Senate — Ruth Whitaker, Barbara Horn and Sharon Trusty — voted against it.

Obviously, we in Arkansas need to elect people who believe our forebears that politics and religion don’t mix. To do it, we need more members of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

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