Home Commentary The Increasingly Naked Public Square and Lancaster, Pennsylvania

The Increasingly Naked Public Square and Lancaster, Pennsylvania

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Editor’s note: The following commentary was adapted from MinistryWatch.com (Warren Smith’s Editor’s Notebook). 

By Warren Smith

A couple of weeks ago I was in Lancaster, Penn., for the annual meeting of the Evangelical Press Association. I had been to Lancaster before, but this trip caused me to fall in love with the city. One of the things I came to appreciate about Lancaster was the ability of both traditional, Christian residents of the town (including Amish and conservative evangelicals) to participate fully in the civil life of the town.

But that peaceful coexistence seems to be breaking down.  While I was in Lancaster, I learned the story of the Lancaster County Community Foundation. This Pennsylvania foundation had given millions of dollars in grants to Christian groups over the years, but that could end.  LCCF announced that nonprofit groups must post their nondiscrimination policies in order to participate in its annual ExtraGive event.

It also published what it calls an anti-hate policy containing a broad definition of hateful activities, including “misinformation targeting an individual or group based on their…sexual orientation.”

The change in policy caused many Christian groups to pull out of the ExtraGive event. The number of groups participating in ExtraGive dropped from 516 to 452. In 2021, the event raised $16 million, but only $10 million in 2022. Many of those who pulled out of ExtraGive participated in a new event in Lancaster called FaithfulGive.

After we published a story about that controversy, we started getting messages from other MinistryWatch readers, telling us that Lancaster is not alone.  Our reporter Kim Roberts, who did a great job telling the Lancaster story, took one of our reader tips and a few days later wrote about a similar situation in Lincoln, Neb.

I commend those organizations in Lancaster and Lincoln who took the difficult step of taking a stand for their religious convictions. That said, I can’t help but feel that something is lost when the institutions of civil society – from these community foundations to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, to many other institutions – force those with sincere religious convictions to withdraw from participation.

Richard John Neuhaus wrote about this phenomenon in his 1984 book The Naked Public Square. He wrote that such restrictions as those placed on religious groups by the Lancaster County Community Foundation would have the effect of leaving the public square “naked,” or “bare” of religious speech and religious people.  The effect would be that the contributions of religious people would be missing or segregated, “ghettoized” from civic life, to the diminishment of both religious and secular communities. That book will mark its 40th anniversary next year, and it’s hard not to see it now as prophetic.

Ministry Watch, an independent donor advocate that profiles public charities, church and parachurch ministries. Ministry Watch is also a place to learn about how to be a responsible giver.