Ideas and beliefs move people, but they become a matter of debate to the common man or woman only when they break out in current events. The separation of church and state is a complex idea, one well suited to scholarly discussions incomprehensible to lay people. With the rise of the so-called Religious Right, however, church-and-state separation is an idea breaking into everyday history. It occupies coffee shop conversation and is a matter of strong opinion to millions of men and women outside ivory towers.

The controversy is especially strong in Nebraska, where, for the last five years, a fundamentalist school near Omaha has been fighting to operate without state-required certified teachers and a license. The Faith Baptist Church of Louisville, with fewer than 30 students, has polarized the entire state. Christians do not agree on the matter, and polls show most Nebraskans opposing the Faith Baptist stand.

Faith Baptist pastor Everett Sileven has served two jail sentences because the school remained open contrary to court orders. He believes the state attempts to usurp the place of God when it requires licensure and teacher certification. He, like thousands of fundamentalists nationwide, sees the church school as a ministry of the church equal to all others. To Sileven, licensing the school is tantamount to the state licensing a pastor. It is wrong, Sileven and his sympathizers say, because Christ alone is Lord of the church.

Last October, Louisville became the center of mild demonstrations by about 500 fundamentalist pastors. They gathered in eastern Nebraska after the Louisville church was padlocked by authorities to prevent classes from being held in it (CT, Nov. 12, 1982, p. 54, and Nov. 26, 1982, p. 58). The events there attracted national attention and sparked new concern among conservative Christians on three counts: the proper relationship between church and government; the appropriateness of civil disobedience; and the church’s role in the education of its members’ children.

As the writer of a letter to the New York Times put it, “There is more at stake in Nebraska than obstinate preachers, baffled bureaucrats, weeping ‘extremists’ and embarrassed ‘moderates’.” The issue, said the educator who authored the letter, “has grave implications for the integrity of the Bill of Rights” and religious and educational freedom.

Four state legislatures, including Nebraska’s, struggled with the licensure of private religious schools last year. Civil disobedience is affirmed as Christian and urged by the Moral Majority, Francis Schaeffer, and other voices listened to by conservative American Christians. Considering the issues raised at Louisville more and more pressing for its readers, CHRISTIANITY TODAY decided to go beyond news coverage of the situation.

The following articles attempt to set the Louisville events in perspective and provoke meaningful thought on the issues those events so pointedly raised. John Whitehead, a constitutional attorney, probes legal questions and suggests a center of focus to help church schools decide when the state exceeds its rightful authority. Assistant editor Rodney Clapp, who visited Louisville for eight days last October, reflects on civil disobedience and growing fundamentalist activism.

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