Sermon by Scott Piepho, July 13. 2008
In oral argument before the United States Supreme Court, the customary introduction is “May it please the Court,” followed by a brief recitation of the facts of the case.
So. May it please the congregation, the facts which bring me before you today are as follows. As of 1959 the State of Pennsylvania – like many states – required, by law, each public school student to begin the day by reading from the Bible. Ellery Schempp, a 16-year-old public high school student and member of a Unitarian Church believed that the requirement discriminated against non-Christians (for that matter against non-Protestants) and that it was contrary to the Constitution. A number of his friends agreed with him, but ultimately none would join him in protest. So, on his own, he one day pulled out a copy of the Qu’ran he had borrowed from a friend’s father and silently read from it while his classmates were reading from their Bibles. Ellery’s protest infuriated his principal, he was suspended and the principal ultimately attempted to persuade colleges not to accept him because he was a trouble maker.
Thus began the long legal journey that culminated in the Supreme Court’s decision in Abington School District v. Schempp, one of two cases in which the Supreme Court found that school-led religious expression violates the First Amendment of the Constitution. A year earlier the Court had held in Engle. v. Vitale that mandatory school-led prayer was unconstitutional. In the Schempp case, the Court agreed that mandatory Bible readings offend the establishment clause of the constitution. For those of us who believe that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment protects minority faiths from majority coercion, these two decisions were essential.
Mr. Schempp -- OK Dr. Schempp – went on to a distinguished career as a chemical physicist, so he was quite likely one of those children who was above average. And we should acknowledge that Unitarians and Universalists are not the only religious minority which has pressed the case for religious liberty. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Catholics, Mormons, Native Americans, Santerians, Amish, all have taken important controversies before the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on this faith tradition that produced a young man with the guts and character of Ellery Schempp.
The Court did indeed find for Ellery and his family and struck down the Pennsylvania law in a decision rendered 45 years ago this past June.
The Court in the Schempp case reaffirmed the principle of government neutrality with regards to religion. Citing century-old opinion by Judge Alphonso Taft, father of President and Chief Justice William Howard Taft, the court held that “the ideal of our people as to religious freedom [is] one of "absolute equality before the law, of all religious opinions and sects . . . The government is neutral, and, while protecting all, it prefers none, and it disparages none."
Recounting the importance of religious freedom to early American colonists, the Court noted that “Nothing but the most telling of personal experiences in religious persecution suffered by our forebears . . . could have planted our belief in liberty of religious opinion any more deeply in our heritage . . . This freedom to worship was indispensable in a country whose people came from the four quarters of the earth and brought with them a diversity of religious opinion.”
Much is made of the “Wall of Separation” between church and state – whether there should be a wall, whether the framers of the Constitution intended such a wall and what the wall should look like. But it’s important to remember that the Court’s adoption of the “Wall” as metaphor and legal standard was in large part in service to this core notion of neutrality. The government protects all religion, prefers none, disparages none.
Sadly, forty five years after the triumph of Schempp, much of the American public hasn’t embraced Ellery Schempp’s legacy. Of all the guarantees in the First Amendment, the Establishment Clause remains among the most nettlesome. A 2007 poll by the First Amendment Center asked respondents if they agree with the statement that “Teachers and other public school officials should be allowed to lead prayer in public schools.” 58% of respondents either strongly agreed or mildly agreed with that statement, a figure that has fluctuated little over the last ten years.
Moreover, as the Federal Courts have shifted to the right over the past three decades, the strength of the neutrality principle has weakened so that now a majority of the Court apparently believes that government endorsement of religion is no longer a violation of neutrality, as long as that endorsement can be characterized as non-coercive.
Clearly, we as religious liberals, not to mention members of a religious minority, find ourselves in what some cultures fearfully call an interesting time. A discussion about what we can do necessarily involves discussion of what has gone wrong.
The easy way to finish out this sermon would be to discuss how tragically wrong – how historically, jurisprudentially, theologically wrong – are those who would impose government-sponsored religiosity upon us. That would be a great deal of fun. But that’s not what’s going to happen.
First, because I happen to believe that the purpose of religion is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable and further believe that we as a congregation are far too comfortable to need further comforting, which leaves the other thing.
More importantly, as a pragmatic matter, little is gained by simply pointing out the errors of others and waiting for them to amend their ways. We are actors in this situation. We play a part.
And we have made errors. Three of them, by my assessment.
First, we have complacently relied upon the courts for too long. While religious conservatives have mobilized, engaged the political process, won converts and electoral victories, religious liberals have been content to decry the mixing of politics and religion.
This is changing. We are seeing more individuals of liberal faith bring that faith into the political sphere, and we are seeing more liberal religious organizing, including the group We Believe Ohio to which this church belongs.
What we still are not doing well is making our case to the general public. We lack a language for making the case for religious liberty which is compelling to moderate or conservative members of mainline faiths. This is in part because we haven’t ourselves thoroughly explored the tensions within the neutrality principle. When, for example, does purging a long-accepted quasi-religious practices – such as the legend “In God We Trust” on our money – rise to the level of disparagement of faith? Should we at some point speak out against attempts to curtail religious expression?
At the same time, we indulge our discomfort with witnessing our liberal faith. Our traditions do not include personal testimonial, and certainly not evangelism. But personal testimonial is the basic unit of conversation about faith, not to mention the most accessible. At the least, we should seek to create personal testimony about the vital power and indispensability of religious freedom.
Which leads to a second mistake we have made. We have allowed our side of the debate to be dominated by secularists. The neutrality principle embedded in the Constitution is different from European style secularism, in subtle but real ways. Unfortunately, many of the religion clause battles are now being fought by groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation which simultaneously advocate for extreme secularism and aggressively promote their atheist views.
Certainly it is their right to do so, but their agenda includes items not on our agenda. Furthermore, by allowing secularists to speak the most loudly, we have allowed the debate to devolve into one of belief versus nonbelief, when the debate should be about how best to protect freedom of conscience.
And at the extremes, secularist rhetoric is inconsistent with our principles. A faith that affirms the worth and dignity of all people should not stand mute as people of faith are slurred as “delusional” or when all people who believe in a personal God are rhetorically lumped together with extremists who fly planes into buildings in a perversion of faith. Yet religious liberals have has the most part stood on the sidelines as Atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have attacked the faith of Christians and other theistic religions.
The liberal imperative to respect diversity of belief and culture does not find exception when the belief and culture being denigrated is located on the other side of the political spectrum.
Finally, while we in the Unitarian Universalist Church are in a unique position to model the respectful diverse religious community we would like our nation and our world to become, we have not done so. Protecting all faiths and denigrating none would serve nicely as a mission statement for the church. Unfortunately our modeling has been highly imperfect.
It seems at times like members of this church fall into two groups – those who think the church is too Christian and those who think it’s not Christian enough. We have the diversity. What we lack is the ability to disagree, and be disagreed with, and remain a loving community. What happens instead is we fragment, we avoid controversy. In the words of Rev. Nancy Arnold, we tolerate diversity instead of embracing diversity.
Embracing diversity is tough, spiritual work. God knows – er, God or Goddess or Gods or Goddesses or the Earth or the Universe or the sum of the Goodness and Wisdom in each of us – knows that if we who try so extravagantly not to offend find it hard, it’s hard.
And maybe that’s the point. Maybe we need to try less hard not to offend and more hard not to be offended.
We’ve come to a point, both as a church and as a society, where people adhere to a belief that they have a right not to be offended. In church, that sometimes translates into a right not to hear things with which they disagree. Rev. Moore has spoken more than once about the disconnect between being in a diverse congregation and expecting not be be offended. Personally, if I get through an entire church service hearing nothing with which I disagree – and disagree strongly – someone isn’t trying hard enough.
Happily, it’s not always this way. Earlier last fall we heard successive services from a member who is a UU Christian and a member who is an Atheistic UU Humanist. I’m thrilled to report that I found plenty with which to disagree in each sermon. But at the same time I braced myself throughout, inwardly cringing at the thought of members who might decide they’ve had enough of that.
Let us then challenge ourselves. Let’s challenge ourselves to stay here when we hear what we don’t want to hear. It might just be what someone – Someone – wants us to hear. Let’s challenge ourselves to challenge each other to speak proudly of our beliefs and engage in respectful dialogue with others.
What I’m suggesting here is impossible. Just like it is impossible for one sixteen-year-old boy, growing up in the fifties, to challenge rule and convention and change the world.
If we can challenge ourselves, we can challenge our church. If we can challenge our church, we can challenge our community. If we can challenge our community, we can challenge the world.
Let it be so.