We are well into the third month of the new year and new legislative sessions. So far we have seen many threats to the separation of church and state, mostly at the state level. We’ve seen bills introduced by legislators who are unapologetic about their agenda. They want to drag their religious ideas into government and to hell with the Constitution. So much for all that patriotic talk. No, these folks want to run the country according to their Bible. It’s a constant threat and we must remain vigilant.
In January, Simon Brown, writing for Church and State magazine, outlined the six biggest threats that these religion-before-state legislators will present this year. I think it’s time to take a look at how these are shaping up at the brink of the second quarter of the year; what’s been tried and what’s to come.
Vouchers – Long touted as a panacea for public school problems, vouchers are a popular backdoor for targeted teaching. Right now there are ten states, plus the District of Columbia, that allow – and in some cases, require – that creationism be taught in private voucher schools. Activist Zack Kopplin has been spearheading the fight against public money going to these schools. He has created an interactive map of said schools. Zack has appeared on Bill Moyers’ show and with our own David Pakman to discuss this threat. The programs used by these schools include curriculum from Bob Jones University – who wrote the textbook dissing hippies – and such blatantly religious groups as Accelerated Christian Education, Purposeful Design and The Foundation For American Christian Education. This infiltration into education is spreading quietly, with state legislators pushing the idea of vouchers as a cost-effective way of saving our schools. Expect more pressure in New Jersey, Texas and Tennessee soon. Much of the money for these proposals and, indeed, for voucher programs across the country, comes from Betsy DeVoss and her group, the American Federation for Children. DeVoss is the wife of Amway heir Dick DeVoss and a former chair of the Michigan Republican party. School voucher programs are her cause and she spends freely.
Creationism in public school science classes – So far this year we have seen Colorado, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma attempt to pass bills that would either require creationism be taught or allow the questioning of evolution in the classroom. We’ve also seen three states - Oklahoma (a different bill), Arizona and Indiana – reject bills requiring teacher to teach “all theories” equally. Montana State Rep. Clayton Fiscus (R-Billings) is trying very hard to get a creationism-in-class bill passed in that state. Oh sure, the wording is “alternative viewpoints” but that’s a dog whistle for creationism. We can be sure to see more bills of this nature since the Seattle-based Discovery Institute advocates for, and helps draft, bills supporting “balanced” presentations of information in science classes. You can be sure we’ll be hearing more from them.
Prayer/Proselytizing in public schools – Sure, the Supreme Court ruled that prayer can’t be required in public schools back in 1962 but that hasn’t stopped the religious right. Christian legislators try regularly to get around that decision and this year won’t be an exception. Last year, Missouri passed their “right to pray” amendment (as if anyone was stopping them) which opened the door for both prayer and proselytizing in public schools, as well as allowing students to skip homework that they feel “offends their religious beliefs.” I can’t help but notice how it’s always the Christians who get these exemptions. Seriously, the Crusades and Inquisition offend my religious beliefs but I never got to skip them in history class. Virginia has a similar bill making its way through their state House right now.
Exemptions for “Conscience” - With most of the provisions of the ACA either in place or visible from here, this is one we’ll be fighting about for a while, I’ll wager. The religious right wants religious institutions and individuals to be able to ignore parts of the ACA – or any law, really – that offends their religious beliefs (that again) even though there are already exemptions for religious institutions. Leading the charge on this one is the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a D.C. advocacy group that promotes policy that adheres to “Judeo-Christian tradition” (I linked to Wiki for them because my web security program gives their actual site a big, red danger sign). The EPPC is in the process of forming “religious freedom” caucuses in every state – they have been successful in 9 so far – which they claim are bipartisan. Right. So far, the campaign to turn “religious freedom” into discrimination against women who use birth control has been slow and stymied. But let’s not forget about the EPPC and other efforts to roll back the contraceptive provisions of the ACA.
“Prayer” Caucuses at the state level – Similar to those “religious freedom” caucuses, the “prayer” caucuses are the pet project of U.S. House Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) Forbes is the chair of the Congressional Prayer Caucus but apparently that’s not enough for him. He wants little mini-me caucuses in every state. The Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation wants lawmakers to…
“… use the legislative process – both through sponsorship of affirmative legislation and through opposition to detrimental legislation – to assist the nation and its people in continuing to draw upon and benefit from this essential source of our strength and well-being.” (Source)
Sounds pretty innocuous, right? Supporters of church-state separation say that the CPCF’s statement is misleading, that the real goal of the group is to entwine their religion firmly and permanently into the government at every level. In other words, to establish a theocracy. Last year, they managed to get Amendment 2 passed in Missouri (see above). Their list of current issues is more of the same and then some. So far, eight states have a “prayer caucus” – Maine, Oklahoma, North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan, Virginia, Colorado and Mississippi.
Anti-Sharia laws – You and I know that the U.S. Constitution prohibits enforcement of religious law. But that’s not enough for paranoid right-wing groups. Nope, they have to waste taxpayer money and time to keep out the dreaded (gasp!) Sharia law! Despite the fact that no one has ever tried to pass any kind of Sharia law in America, the fear-mongers insist that it’s only a matter of time. This unreasonable fear traces back to the idiocy that President Obama is some kind of stealth Muslim and is planning on enacting and enforcing Sharia law here. So far, the usual suspects have actually enacted anti-Sharia laws: Arizona, Kansas, Louisiana, South Dakota, Tennessee and (wait for iiiiit) Oklahoma. The Oklahoma bill was struck down by a federal appeals court because it specifically singled out Sharia law, thus violating the Constitution by singling out a specific religion. All these laws do is whip up anti-Muslim hysteria and feed the fears of the ignorant. They are unnecessary and even dangerous.
These are very real threats to real religious freedom. Make no mistake, there are groups of fundamentalists who have the agenda of dominionism, to create a Christian nation in America. They have no thought for the Constitution. No respect for other faiths. No love for democracy. They are backed by powerful monied interests. Some of the things I’ve written about are simply religious nuts trying to force their faith on the rest of us. But these Christian Reconstructionists are dangerous. We must know and understand the difference while resisting all attempts to align U.S. laws with religion – any religion. When it comes to government, the only thing we should worship is the Constitution. Outside of that, hey, whatever floats your boat. Just don’t try to sink mine.
T. Steelman is a life-long Liberal. She has been writing online about politics since 2007. She lives in Western Washington with her husband, daughter, 2 cats and a small herd of alpacas. How can anybody be enlightened? Truth is, after all, so poorly lit…