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"God Bless America!' _ right?

Advocates for the separation of church and state are expressing alarm about what they view as a blurring of constitutional lines in the religious fervor that has followed the Sept. 11 attacks.

They point, for instance, to the president's declaration of a National Day of Prayer and a House of Representatives' nonbinding resolution advocating the display of "God Bless America" signs in public schools. If groups such as theirs are not vigilant, advocates say, America could find itself under the control of religious extremists similar to the Taliban, whose radical Islamic beliefs subjugate the people of Afghanistan.

Consider, they say, evangelists such as the Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Speaking on Robertson's television program, The 700 Club, shortly after the September tragedy, Falwell said the attacks reflected God's wrath at the American Civil Liberties Union, abortion providers, gay rights supporters and federal judges who banned school prayer. He has since apologized. The incident, though, has not been forgotten by groups such as Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who continue to denounce both Falwell and Robertson weeks later.

"If they were in control, if they represented a majority view of Christians, we'd have a Taliban-like government, run under the Bible, under biblical law. That's the reason why we must continue to be vigilant to uphold the vision of our founders for church-state separation," said Sidney M. Goetz, a retired lawyer and president of the South Pinellas County Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Falwell, Robertson and their followers "are America's mirror image of the Taliban," said the Rev. Harry B. Parrott Jr., a board member of the South Pinellas County Chapter.

"The one difference is that the Taliban has seized power and America's fundamentalists are still trying to," said Parrot, who retired recently as pastor of the American Baptist Church of the Beatitudes, 2812 Eighth St. N, in St. Petersburg.

Similar sentiments were expressed last Saturday, when the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, which is based in Washington, D.C., spoke to members of six of the organization's Florida west coast chapters.

The constitutional principles of religious freedom and church-state separation "stand in sharp contrast to the conduct of those against whom the president has declared a new kind of war," Lynn, 53, told the audience crowded into a meeting room at the Pinellas Park Library, 7770 52nd St. N.

In the days immediately after the attack, Lynn said he had been pleasantly surprised that those constitutional principles were being respected.

"Congress passed, for example, two days after the attack, a Day of Mourning and National Unity proclamation, not a Day of Prayer, the formulation that they usually turn to whenever there's a national crisis, whenever they want a moment of official piety," said Lynn, who also is an attorney and an ordained minister with the United Church of Christ.

"There was no grandstanding in the first few weeks about a constitutional amendment to bring prayer back to the schools. There was no mandate to post the Ten Commandments in every airport . . . no voucher plans to subsidize taxi rides to the place of worship of your choice. . . . None of those things happened."

Those early days of restraint, though, gave way to what Lynn called "civil religion" and described as "an uneasy merger of patriotism and patriotic symbols with religious doctrines and religious symbols."

An example was President Bush's proclamation of a National Day of Prayer, Lynn said.

"The framers of our Constitution," he said, "never understood that it was the role of politicians to tell us what day to pray or on what day we ought to pray particularly hard."

Goetz, the 87-year-old president of the South Pinellas County Chapter of Americans United, agreed.

"Our government should not be leading us in prayer," said Goetz, an agnostic.

"Prayer belongs in churches, mosques, synagogues and so on."

During his talk, Lynn told his audience that public schools in New York and Maryland held mandatory assemblies with mandatory prayer after the disaster. He also said the principal of his son's high school rearranged class schedules to let the Rev. Jesse Jackson give a talk about peace. Jackson's talk included prayer and was liberally sprinkled with Bible stories, Lynn said.

Jackson, a friend, should have known better, Lynn said.

"This is not the time when you suspend the United States Constitution because we're in a time of crisis. It is not the time to play fast and loose with any constitutional principles. It is not the time to shave off the edges of fundamental freedoms," Lynn added.

"Our constitution does not have an asterisk that permits us to experiment with the boundaries of American liberty."

He said school marquees proclaiming "God Bless America" should not be permitted. Such displays might seem trivial, but Lynn said a California mother who objected to a "God Bless America" sign had to remove her daughter from school because she was afraid the child would be harmed.

"Whatever you think about how important "God Bless America' marquees are, I think it's a shame anywhere in America that a mother has to fear her neighbors more than she is fearing Osama bin Laden," Lynn said.

The audience responded with resounding applause.

Since September's terrorism, Lynn said, he has observed many more "deliberate efforts to alter the constitutional landscape."

For example, he said, Rep. Ernest Istook of Oklahoma again plans to introduce a constitutional amendment that would allow government-sponsored prayer on public property, including schools. There is an effort, as well, to include parts of the president's faith-based initiative in the economic stimulus package. Approval would amount to "government-funded religion," Lynn said.

The executive director of Americans United said he also is concerned about the treatment of nonbelievers during the nation's time of grief.

"It is fine for the president to invite Muslims, Jews, Christians _ he even invited a Hindu _ to the White House during the past several weeks. . . . But why not one reference in nearly eight weeks to the millions of decent Americans who deal with the crisis in ways that do not involve religion?" Lynn asked.

"Why is this so difficult? I really don't think it would be too tough for a president who announces that he's going to do away with terrorism to acknowledge at a minimum that we have a full range of diversity of opinion, religious and otherwise, right here in this country."

Americans United is fighting an ongoing battle with "extreme religionists," Goetz said during an interview Wednesday.

"There are people in the extreme right wing of the Christian religion who want to see us get back to biblical ways. Adulterers should be stoned; creationism should be taught in the schools," he said.

"So when they try to get their message into our government institutions, we take issue with them. As long as their beliefs are within the walls of their religious institutions, we have no problem with them. Everyone is entitled to believe as they wish in our country."

As he introduced Lynn last Saturday, the Rev. Parrott warned the audience that the First Amendment "is under siege."

"Persons in the United States who love religion," he said this week, "who love their faith, who love their church, and who want freedom for it and liberty for it have got to be concerned with the First Amendment of the Constitution."

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