By Simon Brown
Officials in Carroll County, Md., have managed to make something as seemingly innocent as a seminar on the Maryland Constitution into a serious church-state separation issue.
County employees were asked to attend a class today on the state constitution taught by an ultra-conservative Christian minister, David Whitney of the Institute on the Constitution.
According to The Baltimore Sun, Whitney said, "We will be looking at the language of our founding fathers who wrote they were 'grateful to Almighty God for civil and religious liberties' front and center on this document. The Bible is the source of the authority that they looked to."
The seminar is not technically mandatory, but who is to say what sort of peer pressure is being applied to reluctant attendees and what consequences employees could face if they skip out?
The training is also being paid for with $800 of county money, which has Americans United particularly concerned.
My AU colleague Rob Boston told The Sun, “It is outrageous for any county government to be spending taxpayer dollars for religious-right political indoctrination, which is exactly what this seminar is about. Do these commissioners realize what a mess they have stepped into? This is a toxic stew, and employees should not be forced to dine there."
The AU Legal Department has written to county officials warning of the constitutional improprieties involved.
Apparently the county commissioners either don’t realize what they’re stepped into, or they don’t care. I’d say it’s the latter because Commissioner Richard Rothschild sees no problem with this situation.
"It is perfectly appropriate to teach a course which factually explains the role God plays in our constitution," Rothschild said, according to TheSun. "Many of us take an oath to uphold the constitution. Government leaders should make every effort to understand it. Many of our problems today occur because leaders ignore this beautiful document, which I honor and respect."
Keep in mind, this is the same county that drew criticism last year when the board began opening its meetings with Christian prayer.
And just when you thought this situation couldn’t get a lot worse, it turns out Whitney is part of an organization that seems awfully cozy with the Christian Reconstructionist movement, which is on the farthest fringe of the Religious Right. Christian Reconstructionists want to scrap democracy in favor of a draconian fundamentalist theocracy.
On its website, the Pasadena, Md.-based Institute claims its view “of government is that there is a God, the God of the Bible, our rights come from Him, and the purpose of civil government is to secure our rights. There are many views of government, from equally numerous world views. Americans are blessed that our Founders' Biblical Worldview informed their political philosophy and the framing of our founding documents.” (The Institute disseminates reams of material by David Barton, a “Christian nation” activist.)
Let’s be clear on a few things. The Founding Fathers did not intend the United States to be a Christian nation, nor did they base the Constitution on the Bible. There’s a reason our laws say nothing about it being illegal to covet our neighbor’s backyard grill.
Carroll County’s officials are veering off into radical territory. Taxpayer money should never be used to fund religious indoctrination, nor should any government employee feel pressured to attend a religiously based seminar sponsored by a government entity.
Everything about this situation is wrong, and county officials need to make it right.