In a move some have termed politically risky, Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton will address the Freedom From Religion Foundation at a convention in Madison next month
The annual conference will stand out this year because Lawton will be the highest-ranking public official to ever give an address at the convention.
Usually, public officials tend to avoid speaking at the conference.
“Many conventions like ours invite public officials to say a few words of greeting to their membership, and that’s what Lawton is doing,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the foundation. “Normally, we get the cold shoulder by public officials.”
Lawton’s decision to speak at the conference could be “political suicide” if Lawton decides to run for higher political office, said Howard Schweber, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin.
Lawton is not seeking reelection as lieutenant governor and announced last year she will not run for governor for “very personal reasons,” without going into more detail.
Schweber said American public officials sometimes begin political downfall when they associate as non-religious or atheist.
Lawton, however, feels her responsibility as a public official compels her to speak at the convention.
“Whenever I am asked to provide an official welcome for national conferences held in our state, whether it’s the Society of Plastics Industries or the American Legion or the Freedom from Religion Foundation, I do my best to accommodate the group if possible,” Lawton said in an e-mail to The Badger Herald.
Lawton will not speak live but will give a five-minute, pre-recorded speech welcoming attendees to Wisconsin, as well as welcoming their diversity and their point of view, Gaylor said. She had intended to speak in person, but could not due to a family trip.
Although constitutional provisions outline the separation of church and state and there is no religious test for office, politicians have found it necessary to demonstrate religious qualifications since the 1980s, Schweber said.
However, this idea emphasizes the paradox of what politicians have constitutionally guaranteed and what citizens ultimately expect, said Dietram A. Scheufele, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin.
“The central role religion has played in recent years is dominating the discussions around the candidates,” Scheufele said.
Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Former Vice President Al Gore all faced public discrimination for either associating too strongly with a religion or not associating strongly enough, Scheufele added.
As a result, Scheufele said in an area like Wisconsin, where religious and personal values have repeatedly been at odds with state policy, he can only hope constituents view the issue in a rational and deliberate fashion.
Lawton also based her decision to attend the conference on her family history, which she said represents embracing different beliefs and views in the United States.
Both of Lawton’s grandfathers worked as protestant ministers and her father served in the Air Force.
“My father repeatedly risked his life to preserve the integrity of this democracy where a clear line between church and state is maintained,” Lawton said. “All of them were patriots in the most profound ways, and I work to honor their legacy.”