9-11-01 GOD AND COUNTRY Church-State Line Blurred after 9/11

Article excerpt

Byline: Mary Maraghy, Times-Union staff writer

In the days and months that followed Sept. 11, patriotism and religion forged an uncommon alliance.

Record numbers of people turned to church and prayer for comfort, and even politicians led prayers for the nation's future. Store shelves were cleared of flags and patriotic decals, and church services rallied around the red, white and blue.

But blurring the already myopic line separating religion and government provided solace for some and delivered unease for others.

From the nation's currency, with its "In God We Trust" imprint, to the invoking of God's name in many of the oaths of office given to elected officials, God and country have always been parallel issues that occasionally touch and then drift apart again, religious and civil liberties leaders agree.

There also seems to be common ground between the sides that religion was a logical component to the surge of emotion following the terrorist attacks.

"When a nation experiences sobering tragedy, such as 9/11, there is a tendency to get back to the realities of life -- our need of God and faith to help us get through the difficult time. Not even the . . . [American Civil Liberties Union] would dare challenge references to spiritual matters during those kinds of times," said the Rev. Jerry Vines, pastor of First Baptist Church.

The question is how far it should be allowed to go unchallenged. A series of prominent court decisions has buoyed a surge of debate over what is and is not acceptable.

"Briefly after 9/11, some politicians were playing politics with religion," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State and an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.

"That's always unfortunate, equating patriotism with religion. It's not true, not fair and shouldn't be the case. These are measures of differences of opinion, not about someone's commitment to their country," said Lynn, who will be speaking Friday in Jacksonville about church-state issues.

Shmuel Novack, a rabbinical student studying at Chabad Lubavitch Jewish Enrichment Center in Mandarin, said it is natural to be drawn to God after events such as the terrorist attacks.

"Sept. 11 put God on the front burner, so to speak, and issues pertaining to him were brought to the headlines," Novack said.

Not all agree, even those within the clergy.

The Rev. Gary DeBusk of Christ Church of Peace in Riverside said he sees danger in mixing patriotism and religion.

"I think that sometimes we Americans think we have a monopoly on God. We seem to think that God will protect us at the expense of other peoples and nations," he said. "Yes, God blesses us, but so does God bless others. I would like to see us be a nation that values diversity."

Jacksonville religious radio show host Mike Chandler said the nation needs a clearer direction on church-state issues.

"Sometimes we are Christian, sometimes we're not. Sometimes we want separation of church and state, sometimes we don't," said Chandler, whose show on Jacksonville station WOBS AM-1530 airs 7 to 9 a.m. weekdays.

"The same members of the judicial and legislative branches who've proposed, voted for and passed these inconsistent policies and laws should form a line at the Prozac counter of the local pharmacy, pronto."

Two separate court rulings in June, one allowing school vouchers and another striking "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, set seemingly contradictory precedents in the realm of church and state separation. Interjected among the rulings are President Bush's call for faith-based volunteer groups to serve the nation, and the likely vote this month by Congress on a bill that would change the law to let places of worship engage in partisan politics.

In one of the June rulings, the U. …