Its pastor is jailed for persistently defying state law.
The Faith Baptist Church School of Louisville, Nebraska, has quarrelled with state authorities for five years. State laws require that all schools be licensed, but the Faith Baptist fundamentalists have refused state licensure because it violates their religious conviction, they say.
Last month, the struggle erupted again. For the second time in two years, the county judge ordered the church—where school is held—padlocked except during regular worship hours. Some 85 fundamentalist pastors from throughout the nation, protesting the lockup, were bodily removed by 18 lawmen. Two days later, the church was reopened for a Wednesday evening service. The ministers vowed that, once inside, they would not leave the church. County Judge Raymond Case suspended his order to have the church relocked after the service, but he did not promise chains would never go back on the doors. Classes resumed in the building the following day.
Roy Thompson, a Cleveland pastor, and Moral Majority national secretary Greg Dixon, an Indianapolis fundamentalist pastor, negotiated with authorities for a resolution. CT assistant news editor Rodney Clapp went to Louisville while Faith pastor Everett Sileven was jailed for violation of court orders and then released. Here is his report:
In Nebraska, the Louis in Louisville is pronounced as it is spelled—no French frills. Louisville is situated on the Platte River, just off Interstate 80 between Omaha and Lincoln. The Ash Grove Cement Company is Louisville’s only industry. The downtown business area stretches all of two blocks, with the Cornhusker Country Music Theater (dances on Saturday nights) dominant on Main Street.
Some have said this town of 1,000 seems more of the Appalachians than the Great Plains. Louisville is built amid sharp hills, and in autumn fallen leaves rollercoaster down the streets, which climb and dive through the community. A sign outside town speaks of Louisville’s quiet advantages: “Six local churches, good schools, reasonable taxes, picturesque setting, picturesque community. A WONDERFUL PLACE TO LIVE AND GROW!”
But journalists and television cameras have been coming to Louisville, and their coming has nothing to do with reasonable taxes, picturesque settings, or the fact that Louisville surely is a wonderful place to live and grow. It does have to do with one of the six local churches.
The Faith Baptist Church has been in Louisville eight years. Five years ago Everett Sileven sat in his church office as both pastor and school administrator. Until late October, he sat some 15 miles away in a county jail cell. It was in the fall of 1977 that some members of the fundamentalist church told Sileven they were not content only with Sunday school. What about Monday (and Tuesday through Friday) school? In public schools, the parents complained, their children could not pray or study the Bible. Discipline was lax, authority disrespected. Were five or six hours at church enough after letting “the world” have their children 35 hours a week? Sileven agreed. He visited a public school in the area and, he says, smelled marijuana in the halls. The principal said stopping the smoking would only cause more trouble. That was incentive enough.
Faith Baptist Church, with 150 members, started a private Christian school and enrolled 17 students.
The Faith Baptist Church school may be school to the 29 students now attending, but it is not a school in the eyes of the state of Nebraska. Nebraska requires that all schools be licensed and staffed by state certified teachers. Faith’s school is not licensed, and no teachers are certified.
The church has, in the last five years, found itself in court nearly two dozen times—an average of almost one court appearance for every 10 Sunday meetings. It has floated down legal channels, losing judgments, all the way to the Nebraska Supreme Court—where it also lost. Ultimately, on September 3, Sileven was asked to leave his pulpit, where he had been leading one in a series of protests. Once outside, the sheriff took Sileven to the Cass County Jail and jailed him for contempt of court orders to close the school.
“Unless the problem is solved, I could stay in here a lifetime,” Sileven observed from jail. He, like his parishioners, believes he stands on a principle that cannot be compromised.
The principle, to the fundamentalists, is religious freedom. Their creed compels them to be separate from the world. With their private religious school, they believe they have built a thought-tight submarine, uncontaminated by the secular humanism that they think floods public schools. Now that the school is built, they believe seeking state licensure would make as much sense as drilling holes in the submarine: state licensing opens the way to state control, and state control means slavery to humanism.
Pastor Sileven will elaborate. “In 1776,” he says, “the citizen was sovereign in a republic. Now he is a slave in a democracy.” Democracy, he wrote in Fundamentalists on Trial, “is one step from total anarchy and lynch mob tactics.” It is closely linked to socialism and communism, and amounts to “government by the strongest pressure group.” A republic, on the other hand, is government according to a constitution. “Aren’t you glad we are not a democracy?” he writes. “We would have no such constitution or guarantee.”
Sileven was busy in jail. In a little over a month, he handwrote four books on legal pads. One, called From Sovereignty to Slavery, explores the drift of America from republic to democracy. Another, The Christian Bartender, considers the sort of civil disobedience that lands a Christian behind jail bars. The preacher was in a common cell with 5 to 11 cellmates and lost no opportunity to witness and lead Bible studies. The cellmates were interested, he says, even the one who somehow acquired marijuana to smoke in the cell.
Finally, Sileven led his church in absentia, seeing streams of parishioners during daily visiting hours and advising his assistant pastor (also his son-in-law) on legal and ecclesiastical matters. With the assistant pastor, Phil Schmidt, Sileven is attempting to organize a coalition of disenchanted Americans—like the John Birch Society, he says—who want to “rectify the system.”
Sileven seemed to have accepted imprisonment. While in jail, the pastor has maintained his weight, and friends say his spirits were up. But Sileven still professes some shock that he, a preacher of the gospel in his beloved United States of America, was imprisoned.
He believes Nebraska’s judges are “all humanists” and do not know how to deal with a real Christian. “I’m a strange breed to these people,” Sileven insists. “The religion of humanism is negotiation. All things can be compromised except life and liberty. They’ve never had anybody say life and liberty can be compromised instead of our position. They believe I will buckle and take a license.”
It is “appalling” to Sileven that President Reagan complains of human rights violations in other countries but allows a pastor to be jailed in Nebraska. Yet there is a bright spot. “This is the best witness for Christ we could have,” Sileven believes.
But to the Nebraska state government, the issue is not faith or religious liberty. It is education, and the state’s responsibility to see that its citizens are properly equipped to function in a society that demands intelligent participation. Nebraska courts believe that state licensing and teacher certification are “minimal intrusions” on religious practice.
Not all legal opinion agrees. The Nebraska Law Review, published by the University of Nebraska College of Law, said rulings on the Faith Baptist case were a “severe blow to religious freedom in Nebraska.”
William Ball, an eminent constitutional lawyer, believes Nebraska’s requirement that teachers in private schools be state certified is unreasonable. He calls state licensure of such schools “entirely wrong” in light of previous U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
Ball says Sileven’s attorneys, David Gibbs and Charles Craze of Cleveland, have failed to bolster Faith Baptist’s case because they refuse to use the Constitution’s “big gun”: the First Amendment’s clause stating that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” (CT, April 10, 1981, p. 48). Ball has successfully used that clause to argue against “excessive entanglement” of government in religious education. Sileven and his lawyers believe that an argument against “excessive” entanglement implies that some entanglement is legal, which they will not concede.
Ball hopes to undo the damage done by representing a friend of Sileven’s, minister Carl Godwin, who is in a similar predicament. Godwin’s Bible Baptist Church operates the Park West Christian School in Lincoln. Park West Christian is also under state scrutiny because it is unlicensed and most teachers are not state certified.
Godwin is a leader of nuance, less confrontational than Sileven, and has built a church of 500 members from four (himself, his wife, and parents) in eight years.
He is given to restrained lobbying at the state capital, spending hours patiently explaining his position to legislators and journalists. “The important issue,” says Godwin, “is that we are reasonable people who recognize the compelling interest the state has to make sure children have a quality education. We are willing to meet that, but at the same time must protect the autonomy of the church.” Though staunchly fundamentalist doctrinally, Godwin has none of the fundamentalist relish for a fight. “I’d give my eyeteeth just to pastor again,” he says.
But even Godwin’s subdued approach has not kept his family immune from the turmoil. Godwin’s first-grade daughter has seen television news showing Sileven in jail. “Last night she asked me why I wasn’t in jail. She thought all pastors were being put in jail,” Godwin said.
The fundamentalists argue education cannot be separated from religion. “Two plus two equals four because God made it that way,” Sileven offers. “Two plus two equals four is religious.” The school, furthermore, is a ministry of the church. The fundamentalists would no more have the state license their school than they would its pastor. It is a matter of lordship, say the Faith Baptists; and Christ—not the state—is Lord of the church.
The “lordship” phrase comes from the writings of one in a cluster of theoreticians the Nebraska fundamentalists read (CT, June 18, p. 46). John W. Whitehead is a Virginia attorney, and a chapter in his The New Tyranny considers “Licensure: A Question of Lordship.” In the chapter, Whitehead traces the etymology of “license” and observes the word comes from the Latin meaning “to be permitted.” It is also, he believes, a term with “religious overtones,” implying “the permission to exist, issued by the religious lord of those who seek approval.”
Accordingly, say the fundamentalists, it is not for the state to give a church ministry (such as a school) permission to exist. That is for the Lord Jesus Christ alone. Like Godwin, Sileven and assistant pastor Schmidt will agree the state has a reasonable interest in education. They say they will provide the state results of standardized tests showing their children are educated well, and proof of school attendance. “But the state has no right to regulate what we teach, how, and when,” says Schmidt. As Godwin puts it, “The state says the proof is in the recipe. We say it is in the pudding.”
If that is so, why are fundamentalists only now insisting on such a right and opening more schools? “Christians have been duped and unwise,” says Schmidt. “They have not read their Bibles. And up until the last 20 years the government has been benevolent so that Christians did not see the need for separate schools.” The Bible gives Christian parents the responsibility for their children’s education and “reprobates”—homosexuals and adulterers—are teaching in public schools. They are also teaching evolution, not creationism, and other tenets of secular humanism.
Faith Baptist parishioners are as steely as their ministers. Despite threats of fines, they have continued sending their children to the school. They are experienced at receiving court subpoenas, with their ministers instructing them to “smile, give them a tract, and accept the subpoena.” Legal costs during the past five years are said to be about $30,000, and these farmers and small businessmen have given sacrificially. (The expensive legal battle has been eased by fundamentalist churches nationwide. Jack Hyles’s Hammond, Indiana, church has contributed $14,000, according to Schmidt.)
Some of the nonfundamentalists in Louisville are offended by Faith Baptist. Faith Baptist women, the townspeople note, are not supposed to wear slacks, only dresses. Sileven, they say, must approve which movies parishioners will see. In a state where University of Nebraska football beats out motherhood and apple pie, and in a town that still remembers its state high school basketball championships of 1959 and 1975, Faith Baptists forbid organized competitive sports.
The sports, Schmidt explains, tend to “glorify man’s body and not God. We give trophies for Bible memorization. The person who gets the biggest reward is the best Christian. It’s not an incentive to live for football, but Christ.”
Then there is the public school issue. To townspeople, the public school teachers, far from being insidious humanists, are likely to be people in the next pew each Sunday. Town activities revolve around school clubs, plays, concerts, and sports. “And besides,” says one woman, “I’ve got two pretty good kids, and they both graduated from public schools.”
The Faith Baptists say they are persecuted by the state. Louisville citizens fear the good name of their town is getting smeared. They also think outside clergymen like Jerry Falwell, who led a rally in a cold rain last year, are intruders. Rhetoric and rumors fly. The Faith Baptists call legal action “Nazi-style police activity” and “the most hideous type of child abuse.” Townspeople hint that Sileven exercises a mysterious control, and they drop names like Jim Jones and Jonestown. The reality, of course, is not at either extreme. It is a serious struggle, however, and everyone is tired.
It is said Thoreau, jailed once for civil disobedience, was visited by Emerson. “What are you doing in there?” Emerson asked. “What are you doing out there?” Thoreau answered. To him, the contested issue was so significant that any right-minded man would go to jail for it. Sileven and the Faith Baptists, like Thoreau, have decided the issue is paramount and will not give. The citizens of Louisville, like Emerson, wish they would see things differently, stay out of jail, and peacefully get on with life.
RODNEY CLAPP in
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