Let Us Pray 

I wouldn't mind bowing my head respectfully while a Wiccan priestess calls the four directions and invokes the blessings of the ancient Celtic gods on the Board's deliberations — if that is the word. Some of the most devoutly religious people I know follow the Goddess; and, for all I know, they may even be right.

But many conservative Christians will be scandalized. For them, the Wiccan blessing is sacrilege at best and demonolatry at worst, a profound affront to their beliefs and even a danger to their mortal souls. And when the Wiccans get their chance — as they will, as surely as Solstice follows Samhain — to bless the Chesterfield County Board, these Christians will feel disoriented and affronted. They will feel, in other words, the way non-Christians have felt for years when politicians claim the endorsement of the Lord of Hosts.

If history is a guide, their leaders will tell them that "the courts" or "judicial activists" are at fault, for robbing "the people" of Chesterfield of their "Christian heritage." That will be a lie, told for political advantage — a conscious attempt to exploit religious fears for secular power. For when the Wiccans get their turn, it will be the result of decades of effort by the religious right to blur the boundary between church and state.

The day of Wiccan prayer will be the day that Reagan and Bush have made. Rejoice and be glad in it.

For nearly half a century, conservatives have been trying to get around the First Amendment, which forbids government from creating an "establishment of religion." What that means is that in America there can be no official, government-sponsored faith. Every American is free to believe and practice those beliefs; government must treat us all as equals.

Beginning in 1962, the Supreme Court tried to give effect to that principle by barring government from sponsoring most religious exercises. Schools could not require Bible-reading or prayer, for example. That principle extended to high school graduations, and to prayer before football games as well.

Of all people, the devout should have been the first to hail this principle. It meant that they and their children would be safe from the shifting winds of public sentiment. During the 1970s, for example, overenthusiastic school districts in some places tried to require courses in Transcendental Meditation, complete with Sanskrit invocations of the Hindu pantheon. Christian parents screamed, and the courts wisely said that the Establishment Clause applied to everyone — "traditional" American religions and groovy new ones as well. Religion in America is a matter of private choice; government should not be involved.

Evangelical Christians for nearly a century had been strong supporters of separation between church and state. But in the 1970s a new breed of preacher — political animals like Virginia's own Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson — proclaimed a new revelation. America would not survive unless government made sure that people worshiped God. Private choice would not do the job; like lost sheep, the ordinary American needed government to point the way to Heaven. The alternative — leaving children and adults to follow their own consciences — was too horrible to contemplate.

The preachers demanded "equality" for religion in the public sphere. If the Campfire Boys and Girls used public school buildings, it was discrimination to forbid the Good News Club from holding Bible study there. If student fees paid for the Chess Club, then it was discrimination to keep evangelical groups from spending the same mandatory fees to bring students to Christ. And, for that matter, if the United Way got government funds to help the poor, then it was unfair to exclude gospel missions from the public largess as well.

This claim for "equality" gave birth to the push for "faith-based" social services. Religious bodies should be given the chance to handle government money, feeding the hungry and preaching abstinence to teenage girls. If a little bit of the Word of God slipped out at taxpayers' expense, that was OK, too. James Madison would have disagreed — the Father of the First Amendment believed that "the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever." But what did he know? No less an authority than Clarence Thomas dismissed Madison's views as "extreme," and thus irrelevant to the new world of "faith-based" government.

But if it is discrimination to keep the Good News Club out of schools, it is discrimination to keep Louis Farrakhan's Nation of Islam from government-funded prison ministries, or Islamic madrassahs from receiving government school vouchers. And if the supervisors, in their wisdom, offer local clergy the opportunity to pray over their fellow citizens at government sessions, then everyone must be included. My guess is that the supervisors and their lawyers know this, and they know they will lose when the Wiccan case gets to court. But there are political points to be gained by calling (as board chairwoman Kelly Miller recently did) Wicca "a nonreligion" because "it doesn't recognize the God that we have recognized."

Miller and the board will waste the public's money by asking a hapless federal judge to bless their official bigotry. The poor jurist will refuse; what choice will he or she have? Then Miller and the board will denounce him as an "activist" and a "liberal" — even though liberal judges in these parts are about as scarce as Chaminade basketball fans.

The decision will be a triumph of activism, true — but not of judges nor of liberals. Decades of patient work by aggressive Christian politicians and conservative theorists will bear fruit when we hear the corners called before the supervisors' meeting.

Conservatives who don't like it have only themselves to blame. As you never tire of telling the rest of us, it's your country; the rest of us just live here.

Blessed be. S

Garrett Epps, a native of Richmond, teaches constitutional law and religious freedom at the University of Oregon. His most recent book is "To an Unknown God: Religious Freedom on Trial."

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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