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Minister advocates separation of church and state

The Rev. Steven Baines says 'God belongs in our hearts'

July 18, 2010|By MARIE GILBERT
  • Gary Williamson, left, shares information Sunday with the Rev. Steven Baines at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Hagerstown. On Sunday morning, Baines spoke on the topic "Fissures in the Mortar: A Crisis in Church-State Separation.
Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer

The Rev. Steven Baines is looking for a few good brick masons.

There's a wall that needs to be repaired, he said, and the fissures in the mortar are running wide and deep.

That wall, Baines said, is the one that separates church and state.

Baines is not a latecomer to his belief that religion and government should never mingle. He was born into it.

"I was raised as a Southern Baptist," he said, "and separation of church and state, at that time, was a vital issue to people of that particular faith."

But along the path of life -- one that took him from ordination in the Baptist church to an elder with the Disciples of Christ -- his appreciation of what the Founding Fathers proclaimed in the First Amendment has grown even stronger.

Today, he said, he is fighting to keep government out of the pulpit.

Baines is the field director for religious outlook with Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS).

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The organization, he said, was founded in 1947, and is the oldest nonprofit dedicated to protecting religious freedom.

More than 60 years later, he said, "we're still fighting for that protection."

On Sunday morning, Baines brought his message to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Hagerstown, where he spoke on the topic "Fissures in the Mortar: A Crisis in Church-State Separation.

"There is a misconception that the organization I represent is trying to get religion out of people's lives, that we are assaulting religion," he said. "Nothing is further from the truth. We believe that people have every right to believe and worship however they wish. That's why we feel so strongly about the separation of church and state. It's what's best for protecting democracy and protecting religion."

Baines said the founding fathers were very clever and developed a unique concept for a period in time when most countries had a state-run religion.

"They believed so strongly that government should not impose their religious beliefs on its people that they created the First Amendment of the Constitution which prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion or impeding the free exercise of religion," he said. "They believed, because of religious persecution, that law and religion had to be separate."

"Thomas Jefferson had no doubt what he was signing his name to when it came to the Constitution," he said. "A holy constitution would have torn the country in two."

Baines said there always have been groups or individuals who have challenged the First Amendment, "but Americans, who honor the words of our Founding Fathers, have always fought back. God belongs in our hearts, not where some politician says he belongs."

Over the years, Baines said separation of church and state has become a political football "tossed around by certain individuals for political gain and to score points."

People of strong religious and spiritual beliefs should be the first to oppose these actions -- not support them, he said.

"Religious freedom is most strong when it is protected from government interference and democracy is strong when it is not influenced by religion," he said.

As a spokesperson for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Baines said he travels the country, speaking to groups about an issue that he said is "too important for people to be apathetic."

Some audiences welcome him with open minds, while others, he said, criticize him as being immoral.

"I am a former Baptist, I have served as both senior pastor and assistant minister in southern Baptist churches in North and South Carolina and I'm now with the Disciples of Christ," he said.

"I believe in Jesus, I'm a minister of God. I'm a man of faith just like Jerry Falwell Jr. I'm not out to eradicate religion. I'm out to protect it. Is government interference best for the free expression of religion in this country? Absolutely not."

Baines said he encourages audiences not to become complacent when it comes to separation of church and state.

"You must organize, educate and motivate in your community," he said. "America is the most religiously adherent, most religiously diverse country.We have to ensure the freedom to believe and worship as we wish by protecting that wall. It's not a liberal thing, not a conservative thing. It's the right thing. We need to keep the words of the First Amendment in our hearts and our minds and remind politicians and people of faith of those words, also."

About the AUSCS



Baines said the Americans United for Separation of Church and State "works vigorously for the separation of church and state through projects that educate the public about church-state separation; working with legislators on all levels to ensure new legislation and policy protect church-state separation; outreach programs, like Sunday's talk; and legal aspects, including serving as a watchdog and "litigation when we see it warranted."

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