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'Forfeit Your Religious Beliefs'? OK Governor Told He Will Violate Church-State Separation if He Speaks at Church

09-12-2019
Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt (AP Photo)
Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt (AP Photo)

Does your First Amendment right to express your religious beliefs end if you're elected to public office?  According to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, it apparently does.

In a letter sent to Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt on September 9th, the FFRF says that his planned speaking engagement to a church men's group in Tulsa later this month on the topic of serving God, leadership, and rearing children, raises serious constitutional concerns.

The letter particularly targets as a problem the church's advertisement of the event where it identifies the governor as the governor.

"The church's advertisements for the event make it clear that you will be speaking as Governor of Oklahoma, not as a private citizen; the church website's front page is currently a large image of you with the words "GOVERNOR KEVEN STITT" in large, all-capital font..."  

The FFRF's letter goes on to argue that when "you speak as governor, you are speaking as the government." (Italics theirs)  It further tells the governor that he should tell the church to remove all references to his government office for this event.

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said in The New American that Stitt speaking to a church group raises no constitutional questions. "Just because you're elected to public office doesn't mean that you forfeit your religious beliefs under the First Amendment," Hunter said. "I think that's nonsense."

According to their letter, the FFRF's problem with Governor Stitt goes all the way back to his inaugural prayer service in January where he pledged to "engage the nonprofits and the churches to really heal and solve some of these social issues county by county that the government can't do, but our heavenly Father can do."  

That kind of effort is reminiscent of President George W. Bush's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives where the President hoped government could work with faith-based programs, like the very successful Teen Challenge drug addiction program, to solve social problems. Atheists objected to that as well.

Critics say the FFRF's demands are pushing the current issue to the point of ridiculousness. Writing in The New American, history and government professor Steve Byas says, "Taken to its logical conclusion, no person employed by any level of government or holding any elected office at any level of government could ever speak to a religious gathering, unless the person's position in the government was hidden."

Attacks against people who practice their faith and also hold public office, or a public position, have been going on for a long time.

Byas recounts when Apollo 8 astronauts read the Creation story from the Book of Genesis while orbiting the moon on Christmas Day, 1968. Prominent atheist and communist Madalyn Murray O'Hair promptly sued NASA, arguing that the astronauts were employees of the federal government, and therefore they had violated "separation of church and state."

More recently, in 2015, the fire chief in Atlanta, Kelvin Cochran, was fired from his job after city leaders took issue with a men's Bible study he wrote in which he argued that God created sex within the bounds of marriage for the purpose of procreation.

As reported by CBN News, his book was given to a homosexual city council member who then complained to the mayor and city leaders. He was promptly terminated.  Cochran fought back and sued the city.  Two years later, a federal district court ruled that the city of Atlanta violated his First Amendment rights by terminating him for expressing his biblical views on marriage.

"The government can't force its employees to get its permission before engaging in free speech," said Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot, who argued before the court on behalf of Cochran.

While Cochran is grateful for the court's decision, he's shocked he got fired in the first place.

"Most Americans are astonished that in America you could be terminated from employment for expressing your thoughts and beliefs," he told CBN News.

Back in Oklahoma, muskogeephoenix.com editorializes that the whole stew over the governor speaking at the church is "much ado about nothing."

"So far, we haven't seen any evidence from anyone, including Freedom from Religion Foundation, that Stitt is using his office to promote religion. He's going to Tulsa, his hometown, to speak at a church. He's not hosting an event on state-owned property, he's not bringing all members of his administration to the event. He's going as Kevin Stitt, Oklahoman, who also happens to be governor."

So far, no word as to whether the governor of Oklahoma will comply with the wishes of the FFRF and force the church to remove any advertisement that recognizes that he is the governor of the state. But if this editorial is representative of what most Oklahomans think of the ruckus, an educated guess would be "NO."

 

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