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A Texas preacher, two library books and the Constitution: check this out!

Two of my least favorite books are Jerry Falwell's America Can Be Saved! and Pat Robertson's The New World Order. The first contains a trashing of America's public schools and the second creates a dark, paranoid vision of world history dominated by Jewish bankers and secret societies.

These are also dangerous books, at least in the sense that they preach nonsense which, if believed by their readers, would lead them to take positions on issues that would be harmful to our country. That's just my opinion.

Now, these books (and a number of other books I don't like, including some bad fiction) can be found in my local Virginia libraries. So I thought, why not check these books out for a very long time, as in permanently. Then, when they come after me to give them back, I'll pay the fare.

But, here's the kicker. When the library board tries to repurchase them, I'll object and get my local city council to pass a resolution ordering that the books stay off the shelves.

But wait a minute. I can't do this. It wouldn't be right. I've been to seminary, and Exodus (at least in my version of the Bible) makes it pretty clear that "Thou shalt not steal." Moreover, I also went to law school and there we learned that when a government body like a city council agrees to stop a book purchase because of a religious objection, it is called censorship, prohibited by the First Amendment.

Well, I recently spoke with a minister who apparently went to a different kind of seminary than I did. Pastor Robert Jeffress, now of Wichita Falls, Texas, acted out my very scenario.

His targets were two different books -- children's books aimed at letting children know, in an age-appropriate fashion, that there are gay families; that some children may be being raised by two men or two women. He wouldn't return Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy's Roommate and eventually paid $54 in fines.

Pastor Jeffress is now campaigning for the city council to bar the library board from buying replacement copies. Indeed, he's gone a tad further. In a sermon (broadcast over the local NBC affiliate) he called for the defeat of any council members who voted to retain the books, labelling them "infidels who would deny God and his Word."

Jeffress even went so far as to do a little political strategizing. He noted that voter turnout for council elections is quite low, thus maximizing the potential influence of his 8,300-member congregation in the Wichita Falls balloting.

I wrote a letter to Jeffress warning him that this commingling of moral positions with partisan electioneering is "placing the tax-exempt status of your congregation in jeopardy." The news media was sent a copy of the letter the next day.

Pastor Jeffress called me after he got a few media inquiries, and I explained that we had reported about 15 churches, temples and religious charities to the IRS when they violated the explicit prohibition in tax law prohibiting endorsement of or opposition to candidates for public office. His was a "gray area," I said, which is why we warned him and didn't just send a packet of documents and a copy of his sermon on video to the IRS.

He seemed to be attentive to the distinction between speaking out on moral issues and speaking out in opposition to specific candidates. However, he was also trying to justify his comments by noting that the election was two years off (legally irrelevant), and even then he conceded that nothing would be more important to his vote than the book decisions. He added that he had never intended for this to get so much attention and that short of delivering a resolution of his Board of Deacons to the city council, the matter was closed.

Closed it does not appear to be. Pastor Jeffress' campaign has now become the subject of all kinds of misleading press coverage. The Oklahoma Baptist Messenger, for example, headlined its front page story, "Church's stance on moral issues sparks Americans United tax exemption threat." The story is replete with quotes from Jeffress' clergy allies suggesting I had come from the very "Gates of Hell" and that it was nothing short of a "try to silence one of the few remaining voices for truth."

Good heaven! I don't care how many sermons against homosexuality Pastor Jeffress wants to give (although I reserve my right to disagree with him). What's more, taking things that don't belong to you, including books owned by the whole community, is a lesson most first graders understand, but I wouldn't even ask the local district attorney to go after Jeffress for larceny. I only want the pastor to learn to draw the line between his moral outrage and his church's involvement in partisan political campaigns.

Of all the grand silliness of Jeffress' crusade, perhaps the strangest feature is his supporters' claims that I am abridging "pulpit freedom" guaranteed by the First Amendment. Would this happen to be the same constitutional protection they are shredding in defense of Jeffress' book burning -- er, book stealing?

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
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Article Details
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Author:Lynn, Barry W.
Publication:Church & State
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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