GCC faculty and students sat captivated in silence in the seats of Kreider Hall as Harry Schwartzbart asked them one question: “Are we going to have a theocracy in this country or are we going to have church and state separate?”
Founding President of the San Fernando Valley Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Schwartzbart held a lecture titled “Is America a Functioning Theocracy?” on April 22. “This [religion in government] is a very important issue in America,” he said.
The lecture was a part of the Humanities and Social Science lecture series, put on by Mass Communications Professor Mike Eberts. “I got a tip from another faculty member that he was a high-quality speaker who knew his stuff and was willing to speak here for free. I thought that he would make an interesting and provocative speaker.,” said Eberts.
Schwartzbart discussed his passionate dissatisfaction with President George W. Bush and his administration’s gradual implementation of religion in government and its policies. “We can’t have a functioning theocracy in this country,” said Schwartzbart. “If we go in that direction, government will not be dictated by science but by the interests of some of the people that believe in the Bible.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State was founded in 1947 and has its national headquarters in Washington, D.C. The organization deals chiefly with litigating, advocating and educating, said Schwartzbart, who has been a member for more than 50 years. His San Fernando Valley Chapter is the largest chapter in the country; it meets four times a year. “We preach to government about the importance of this issue,” he said.
Among the many important issues regarding the separation of church and state, Schwartzbart touched on abortion, religion in public education and in government establishments; many of these issues will likely be addressed by candidates in the upcoming presidential election.
The president elected this November will likely chose two to three new associate justices of the Supreme Court, as a few are ready to retire, said Schwartzbart. Since the Roe V. Wade court decision is being questioned, it is likely that new justices could overturn one of the biggest landmark cases in U.S. history. The 1973 court case granted women the right to have an abortion during any stage in her pregnancy.
Justice Antonin Scalia is considered to be the most conservative justice on the bench. “When George Bush was running to be president, he said when he gets to name the next justice, it would be one like Scalia,” said Schwartzbart. This appointment would seriously jeopardize a woman’s right to chose, said Schwartzbart.
“That would be a tragedy in this country,” he said. Aside from being a right-wing conservative, Scalia is also known for being a textualist, one whose interpretations of the Consitution are “guided by the text and not by intentions or ideals external to it, and by the original meaning of the text, not by its evolving meaning over time,” according to Scalia.
Schwartzbart also discussed Bush’s desire to restrict sexual education to abstinence as the only pregnancy-prevention education that is taught in public schools. “That’s rather stupid,” he said. Though it is always a good idea to teach young students not to have sex, said Schwartzbart. “I’m afraid some kids are still going to do it.”
Schwartzbart further criticized Bush’s views on teacher-led prayer in a public classroom. “President Bush sees nothing wrong with a teacher leading a prayer [in a public school],” he said. “What do you do about someone who’s not a Christian?”
Schwartzbart went on to call the posting of the 10 Commandments in a public courthouse unconstitutional “because that is a religious message.”
He added, “Religion is a private affair between you and your God, if you want to believe in one, and government can’t get in on the act.”
He ended his lecture early to leave the audience with a question-answer session. When audience members pointed out the inclusion of references to God in the Declaration of Independence, he replied that it is the Constitution and not the Declaration of Independence that is the document that outlines the laws we live by. “God isn’t mentioned in the Constitution and that is by design,” said Schwartzbart.
Before audience members left the hall, Schwartzbart moved them with one of his favorite quotes by James Madison: “We need to take alarm at the first encroachment of our civil liberties.”