Rob Burgess

Rob Burgess Tribune night editor

In my career as a journalist I have served my time reporting on city council, county supervisor and state regulatory meetings, to name just a few. Whatever else they might have been, they weren’t holy places. In the many, many hours I spent there I never felt the presence of anything that might be described as transcendent or spiritual.

Perhaps this is part of why I have so much trouble understanding those who seek desperately to assign governmental powers to their religious beliefs. Why do they keep trying it?

“[State] Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, scrapped his proposal to make the Holy Bible the official state book [of Louisiana] before it could go to a full vote of the state House of Representatives Monday evening,” reported Julia O’Donoghue of The Times-Picayune on Monday. “The bill had become a distraction, he said.”

Is there something about this time of year? When I read that, I couldn’t help but think back to my April 17, 2013 column, “Believe; it may be law soon,” in which I wrote about North Carolina state Reps. Carl Ford, R-China Grove, and Harry Warren, R-Salisbury, who introduced a bill that would have allowed lawmakers there to establish a state religion. Just days after being introduced April 1, 2013, the bill was quickly pulled from consideration — not unlike Carmody’s Bible bill.

Fortunately, those two bills were picked off before they could rise to the level of a full hearing. LGBT residents of Mississippi weren’t that lucky. Senate Bill 2681 was just one of the religiously based, anti-gay laws wending their way through numerous state legislatures I wrote about in my March 5 column, “Like déjà vu all over again.”

Someone needs to tell these legislators they fundamentally misunderstand oppression if they think not being able to discriminate against others anymore is tantamount to being discriminated against themselves.

“Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill [April 3] that supporters say will assure the unfettered practice of religion without government interference but that opponents worry could lead to state-sanctioned discrimination against gays and lesbians,” reported The Associated Press on April 3. “The bill, called the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, will become law July 1. It also will add ‘In God We Trust’ to the state seal.”

In my column from last year, I discussed the religious opinions of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson is famous for, among many other accomplishments, popularizing the term “separation of church and state.” This idea is enshrined in his Jan. 1, 1802 letter to Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins and Stephen S. Nelson of the Baptist association of Danbury, Conn.

What people don’t usually quote from is the initial letter sent by the committee to Jefferson on Oct. 7, 1801. As a religious minority, they were concerned about being overwhelmed, not by the government, but by the powerful Congregationalists.

“Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals,” they wrote.

The avoidance of a state religion is the best thing that ever happened to the spiritual diversity of this country. Think of how many churches, denominations and movements are active in America at any given time because there is no central, official church lording over everything.

Not only is the state no place for church, church has no room for the state. If you don’t believe me, sit in on a zoning hearing sometime and see if you feel moved by the spirit.

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at rob.burgess@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.

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