Faithís place in politics debated
Event questions role of the right and left in pushing agendas
By Kevin Mayhood, The Columbus Dispatch, October 09, 2006
The country has gone awry when children canít sing Silent Night or pray in school, a minister told an audience Downtown yesterday.
"The forces of darkness -- should never silence people of faith," said Russell Johnson, senior pastor of the Fairfield Christian Church in Lancaster.
"We donít want to be muzzled behind stained-glass windows. We want to make a difference."
Eric Williams, senior pastor of North Congregational Church of Christ in Columbus, said he is concerned when religious values wonít value all citizens.
"The church needs to stand apart from government and be an able partner so that all citizens might benefit," Williams said.
Johnson and others argued the left has worked to stifle the voice of religion in the U.S.
Williams and others voiced a concern that some in the religious right are promoting a Protestant theocracy.
The speakers were joined by activists on their respective sides, at a forum called "Church and State in Ohioís Electoral Politics." An audience of more than 150 watched a lively but civil discussion in the Riffe Center.
"The issue in Ohio is the same all over the country," said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which co-sponsored the forum. "Will churches willingly or unwittingly become soap boxes for certain candidates? "
Williams and 30 other ministers filed a complaint against Johnson and World Harvest Church Pastor Rod Parsley in January, claiming the two were violating laws for tax-exempt organizations. The ministers said the evangelical pastors were politicking for J. Kenneth Blackwell, the conservative Republican candidate for governor. Johnson leads the conservative Ohio Restoration Project to enlist "patriot pastors" and register "values voters" for conservative causes.
All of the panelists agreed that church leaders can speak about issues such as abortion, poverty and war in the context of current events.
Jay Seckulow, director of the eventís other co-sponsor, the American Center of Law and Justice, said no minister should have to fear an IRS audit because of what he or she says from the pulpit.
Freedom of speech is a guaranteed right under the U.S. Constitution. Lynn said a tax exemption is not guaranteed. The law says tax-exempt organizations canít promote or oppose a candidate. If speaking out is more important, a church can give up the exemption, he said.
Johnson and Phil Burress, executive director of Citizens for Community Values, which promoted the constitutional ban on gay marriage passed in Ohio 2004, argued the country was founded on Judeo-Christian values, which were widely accepted for nearly 200 years.
Williams countered that Presidents Madison and Jefferson feared churches could become powerful enough to coerce citizens into certain religions, but also feared religions could be corrupted by the state.
In 1875, President Grant warned that churches could sap the power of the government, said Mark Owens, a lawyer and former director of the IRS division that deals with tax-exempt organizations. Owens helped draft the complaint against Johnson and Parsley.
"We need to maintain a balance between church and state."
Despite being investigated for promoting Blackwell over Democrat Ted Strickland, Johnson likened Strickland to the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton during the panel discussion.
When asked about it afterward, Johnson said, "I think Ted Strickland is the far left.
"Will he support the constitution passed by 62 percent of the voters on the definition of marriage? I think thatís a legitimate question."
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