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Blake Overlien (copy)

Emanuel United Methodist Church Rev. Blake Overlien shares his message Nov. 19 during the Baraboo Gathers event in the Baraboo High School Commons.

The final two months of 2018 brought an unprecedented level of attention to Baraboo, as the school and community were thrown into the spotlight as the result of a photo that went viral.

Since then, the school and community have initiated steps to answer questions and offer solutions impacting our future.

In a Dec. 31 Baraboo News Republic story, a newly affronted group came to the community’s attention. The Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation delivered what was described as a “rebuke” of the inclusion of prayers during the Baraboo Gathers event held Nov. 19 at Baraboo High School.

The foundation objected to voluntary prayers offered by faith leaders participating in the event. A press release from the organization co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor stated, “Injecting religion into a public school-sponsored event intended to unify the community has the opposite impact.”

Was Gaylor in attendance that evening, or in subsequent meetings to gauge the community’s state of healing? I believe most have sought their own path for healing if they saw fit, in whatever manner they themselves chose, and for many, likely included prayer. Clergy at the event clearly stated they were offering, not requiring prayers, understanding all may not have religious affiliations.

The foundation chose to cast aspersions without understanding the context of the meeting, and continues tilting at windmills.

According to the article, an attorney from the foundation sent letters to community leaders stating the inclusion of religion in a government-sponsored event is unconstitutional. It often boils down to the much-used phrase, which never actually appears in our Constitution, referring to separation of church and state.

What was the origin of “separation of church and state”? Historians point to a letter written by a number of Baptist ministers from Danbury, Connecticut, to President Thomas Jefferson in late 1801, regarding concerns over establishing a national religion. In response, Jefferson referenced the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment, which states “Congress shall make no law regarding the establishment of a religion” and referred to a “high wall of separation between the church and state.” In the context of the letter, Jefferson conveyed the Baptists had no fear of a “national” religion, thus the church was protected from actions by the state.

The phrase, essentially unused for almost 150 years, was brought to prominence in a key Supreme Court decision, Everson v. Board of Education in 1947, regarding public schools providing transportation for parochial students. More important than the decision itself was the language from Jefferson’s letter, rather than legal precedent, referred to by Justice Hugo Black for the majority in a 5-4 decision by a very liberal court, and the phrase made its way into everyday court use.

It’s interesting to note Justice Black was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and a Democratic senator from Alabama before President Franklin Roosevelt nominated him for the high court in 1937.

Is it unconstitutional to offer a prayer at a government meeting? I looked to the foundation’s own website for research at ffrf.org, where this question is addressed. The website refers to two Supreme Court rulings. In Marsh v. Chambers in 1983, “The Court ruled the Nebraska legislature’s tradition of opening with a prayer from a paid chaplain was constitutional.” Later, in Greece (N.Y.) v. Galloway in 2014, “The Court ruled not only that municipal or county bodies may host prayers at meetings, but that such prayers can be pervasively sectarian (e.g. Christian in nature).” The Greece decision makes the right to pray very clear.

Schools, municipalities and other entities often cower at threats made by organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, or even apply pressure on employees or students who seek to live out their faith in public. It is critical for us all to learn the extent of our religious freedoms, and stridently push back at intimidation tactics. It’s time for those who wish to express their faith to do some rebuking of their own.

The foundation doesn’t limit its attacks to Christians alone. In 2013, the organization wrote a letter to the Ohio Holocaust Memorial Committee objecting to the inclusion of a Star of David, a well-recognized symbol of Jewish faith, in a memorial to be constructed on the Ohio statehouse grounds. Today, the Star of David is a prominent feature of the Ohio Holocaust Memorial, as it should be.

We all are free to choose whatever faith, or lack thereof, we wish. Regarding religion, our Constitution further states Congress shall make no law “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

If you choose to live your life without faith or hope, you are welcome to do so. Just don’t be offended when I live out mine.

Scott Frostman lives in Baraboo and has roots throughout Wisconsin. He believes anyone can make a difference and can be reached at scfrostman@gmail.com.