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Baptists Should Talk About Church-State Separation

I am the church member who made the request to use facilities of First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City for a public meeting with Barry Lynn.

I applaud and endorse all of the recent and future church activities described by Pastor Tom Ogburn in his May 10 EthicsDaily.com article, “Defining First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City.”<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
But I do not feel his article accurately reflects my written request, conversations about the attendance, publicity for the event or the intent of the evening meeting at which Barry Lynn would speak.
 
Several months ago, a customary written request to use church property was completed and submitted. There was no conflict on the church calendar. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State was identified as the sole speaker.
 
I am currently the executive secretary of the Oklahoma Chapter of AU and have held similar positions for the last 10 years. My participation with Americans United is no secret within the church or the community. I have made similar requests in the past, and public meetings and officers meetings have been held on at least five previous occasions.
 
Based upon the size of past meetings, I communicated to the church staff and Pastor Ogburn an estimate of between 30 to 50 participants. The meeting was to be an evening event for those who were unable to attend the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />11 a.m. “Interfaith Day of Prayer and Reflection” on the south steps of the state Capitol.
 
Barry Lynn would speak and then there would be a period of questions and answers. The time for the meeting was 7-8:30 p.m. No refreshments or coffee was discussed.
 
The topic, “What Place Does Religion Have in the Public Square,” seemed completely appropriate for a public meeting in a Baptist congregation’s facilities. The meeting, which was moved to the First Unitarian Church after our church withdrew permission, took place with no problems.
 
Approximately 100 people attended, including several from First Baptist Church. The larger-than-estimated attendance probably had more to do with the FBC press release rescinding permission to meet at the church than any publicity we distributed. Nothing said by Barry Lynn would have been inappropriate at my home church.
 
Because of today’s political climate, no discussion about the separation of church and state can take place without a “political tone.” For that very reason, many Baptist pastors continue to avoid the topic. Those who do talk about it often present it as some sort of threat to our American way of life.
 
To me, it was essential that those of us who accept the biblical, traditional and judicial definition of the “separation principle” say so on the National Day of Prayer and Reflection. It was also essential that our celebration include more than just evangelical Christians. Persons of other views also reach their conclusions as a matter of conscience.
 
Freedom of religion has its basis in the freedom of conscience. No level of government may intrude into that very private mental and emotional state. That was the intent of the evening meeting with Barry Lynn.
 
As a Christian of over 45 years, freedom of conscience is an essential aspect of my faith. Nothing is more personal than one’s approach to the religious act of prayer.
 
Nothing is more needed in our society today than a public restatement that each person’s reasons of conscience for praying, or not praying, are acceptable in our national and state societies.
 
Nothing is more harmful than the appearance that government is taking sides in the variety of religious debates taking place in our society.
 
As a member of First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City for over three years–currently on the deacon body, teaching an adult Scripture study class and a participant in church committees, business meetings and youth and children’s activities–I was greatly disappointed by the sudden denial of the facilities two days before the publicly announced meeting. To say, I was embarrassed is putting it mildly.
 
At my request, in a recent personal meeting with Tom Ogburn in his office, we discussed the decision-making process for the rescinding of permission to meet FBC. Apologies were offered, but the ultimate reason for the decision is still unclear to me.
 
The public promotions of the meeting were exactly as conveyed to the staff and pastor. Our Americans United Chapter’s newsletter, The Interfaith Alliance of Oklahoma’s newsletter,
Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists’ newsletter, Cooperating Baptists of Oklahoma meetings, handouts at various community meetings and one paid advertisement in a local free distribution newspaper (which came out after the cancellation) were the total extent of our public promotion.
 
Tom and I disagree that the giving of the location of the meeting at FBC and the church address constituted “hosting” or “identifying the church” with Americans United and Barry Lynn. If a meeting is to be held and the public invited, the address and location must be given.
 
It is a shame that a meeting related to the historic Baptist principle of separation of church and state has been allowed to evolve into such a public disagreement. This is a classic example of the current political and religious climate. There is a hesitancy to have a meaningful dialogue over a critical aspect of the Christian faith for fear of being divisive and placed in opposing camps.
 
Jim Huff is a member of First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City and executive secretary of the Oklahoma chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
 
Previous related articles:
Oklahoma City Church Denies Meeting Space to Interfaith Group
Americans United Hopes to Export Interfaith Day of Prayer Service
Defining First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City