Debate covers church, state

The issues of separation of church and state, the First Amendment and how Congress’ decisions affect taxpayers will be disputed today.

The debate, which is at noon at the Bates Law Building room 240 at the UH Law Center, is between two nationally renowned Establishment Clause lawyers, Hiram Sasser and Barry Lynn.

On June 28, the United States Supreme Court ruled that taxpayers can no longer challenge President George W. Bush’s offices of faith-based and community initiatives.

"That makes it much more difficult for citizens to challenge government-spending programs, (which) they believe violate the separation of church and state," said Lauren Smith, Communications Assistant of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The Establishment Clause, which begins the Bill of Rights, states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…" and the Supreme Court ruled that the executive branch is not included in this provision.

The increasing political power of religious institutions in combination with a conservative U.S. Supreme Court make this an important time in our history, said Barry Lynn, AU executive director, at the American Constitutional Society’s national convention on July 27-28.

"The faith-based initiative is a grotesque intrusion into the separation of church and state – a terrible idea," Lynn said at the convention. "It’s the worst idea since they brought King Kong from Skull Island and moved him to New York City."

On the other hand, Hiram Sasser, director of litigation of the Liberty Legal Institute, is in favor of the government funding faith-based initiatives.

"The federal government should not discriminate against who they give money to," said Sasser, "They should fund whoever can best help the poor, and in many situations, that’s a community church. Who is going to know more about which house needs painting or which family needs food? The community church leader or a government bureaucrat 500 miles away?"

The First Amendment prohibits the federal government from establishing a religion, not from supporting them, Sasser said.

"If people are applying for funds to help the poor, then they should receive the same consideration as any other group," he said.

Lynn is also an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and graduated from the Georgetown University Law Center. He has also been legislative counsel for the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union and for the UCC’s Office of Church in Society.

AU believes in citizen’s rights of freedom and religion and the government should remain neutral with respect to LLI, which has protected the religious freedoms of churches by attempting to limit the government’s power, according to each organization’s respective mission statement.

The debate is part of a semester-long lecture series hosted by the newly formed UH chapter of the American Constitution Society.

"We are hoping to provide a balanced look at these prominent issues that we see," said Morgan O’Neill, vice president of external affairs of the ACS at the University of Houston Law Center. "The ACS is a progressive policy association and we are hoping to make students more aware of policies that affect them."

For more information on the lecture series, visit

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