The U.S. Supreme Court’s blatant pandering to the Christian conservatives, guised as limited in scope, is eroding your constitutionally protected freedom from religion.

The Supreme Court just ruled in American Legion v. American Humanist Association (2019) that the 40-foot-tall Christian cross on public property in Bladensburg, Maryland, owned and maintained by the city, does not violate the Constitution’s First Amendment separation of church and state clause.

Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion no doubt contains volumes of legalese justifying the decision. Andrew L. Seidel, a constitutional attorney and director of Strategic Response for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, cut through it when he wrote: “Alito’s majority opinion is bereft of both principle and reason. He could have been more concise and lost little nuance by simply writing: The 40-foot-tall Christian cross is really old and people will get upset if we remove it, so it stays.”

The court ruled the decision is limited to war memorials with religious symbols that are “long standing” or have acquired “an added, secular meaning.” Limits notwithstanding, whether or not state and local governments can install new monuments with religious symbols that have an added secular meaning is open to interpretation.

Let’s look at other “limited” decisions to see how long their limits lasted.

In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014), the company claimed providing female contraceptions in their employee health care plan, as required by the Affordable Care Act, would violate their Christian beliefs. The court agreed but limited the exemption to closely held corporations.

Wheaton College, a privately owned Christian corporation, raised the same objection. The court asked Wheaton College to fill out a religious exemption application but the college replied that filling out the application would violate their Christian beliefs. Days after the court issued their limited decision in the Hobby Lobby case, Wheaton College was granted the same exemption even though they are not a closely held corporation. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “If just filling out a form can count as a substantial (religious) burden, it’s hard to imagine any obligation that would not.” Far from being limited, Ginsburg referred to the ruling as “a decision of startling breadth.”

In Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer (2017) the Supreme Court ruled that churches cannot be denied public taxpayer funds for non-religious improvements. Chief Justice John Roberts said denying public funds because the applicant is a church is “odious to our Constitution.” Apparently the Supreme Court will defend your freedom from religion, but only if it serves the Christian conservative agenda.

Maine is grappling now with these ill-conceived decisions. Three Maine families who live in school districts that don’t have a high school want to send their children to religious high schools and have the town reimburse them with public funds. Under Maine law school districts that don’t have a high school can use public funds to help pay a student’s tuition at public or private schools, but the law also prohibits public funds from paying for religious education. These families feel the state law is discriminatory and want the law overturned.

The plaintiffs are basing their lawsuit on the Trinity Lutheran Church decision that limits churches using public funds to non-religious improvements. Having lost in the Maine U.S. District Court, Tim Keller, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice who is representing the plaintiffs, had a broader interpretation of the decision. He said, “This fight against religious discrimination is headed to the First Circuit (in Boston) and then possibly to the Supreme Court.” So much for limited decisions.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her dissenting opinion on the court’s Trinity Lutheran Church decision, took a position that applies to Maine using public funds for religious education. She wrote, “There’s no way for the government to give money to (a church) in a way that didn’t promote its religious mission.”

We have separation of church and state because religious leaders at the time demanded the Bill of Rights include it. The leaders knew government funding of religion leads to government control of religion. If these decisions continue we can expect Christian conservatives to have more control over government and for government to have more control over all religious beliefs.

If you value your religious freedom to believe what you want, support your First Amendment guarantee of the separation of church and state. Without it you will be required to believe what the government wants you to believe.

 

Tom Waddell is president of the Maine Chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. He can be reached at: [email protected]


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