Religious leaders in central Maine split on Mills’ house of worship order,” or so the headlines in this newspaper read. What wasn’t reported is some religious leaders want to use the Constitution’s separation clause as a shield when it suits their purpose and ignore it when it doesn’t.

Under Gov. Mills’ liberal order, all businesses where people gather in groups, including the business of religion, must comply with a limit of five people per 1,000 square feet or up to 50 people, whichever is greater. Since congregating in groups is a prime way the coronavirus spreads, Gov. Mills’ order follows the Constitution’s mandate to treat religious and non-religious groups equally by protecting everyone’s health.

Lindsay Crete, the governor’s spokeswoman, said the order is applied “fairly and equitably consistent with public health restrictions on other venues across Maine, namely retail space.” and she will make future decisions “based on science and the best interests of Maine people amid this ongoing pandemic.”

Some religious leaders interpret this and similar orders as violating their religious freedom. Calvary Chapel in Bangor objected to Gov. Mills’ May 2020 order because the “government now presumes to have the authority to violate our constitutionally guaranteed and God-given rights to freedom of religion,” and said the church doesn’t look to the government for permission to meet because “it is already ours from God.” The Bishop Robert Deeley of the Portland Roman Catholic Diocese objected to Gov. Mills’ recent order claiming the restrictions are unacceptable and “the diocese had been left out of decisions about the pandemic response.”

The Constitution must be taken as a whole, not cherry-picked, reinterpreted and used as a shield to justify any action. The First Amendment’s separation clause means governments cannot legislate religious beliefs and no religion can decide what laws the government passes.

While the Constitution prohibits the government from regulating religious beliefs, the Supreme Court ruled in several cases the government must regulate religious action if the behavior threatens individuals’ health and well-being. Thus, the separation clause requires Gov. Mills to protect parishioners’ health and anyone who comes in contact with them and prohibits her from including the diocese in the administration’s pandemic response.

“While I respect everyone’s First Amendment right to practice their faith and the religion of their choice, I suggest public health demands certain changes in the way we do a lot of things, and most of the churches in Maine understand that and recognize that,” Mills said.

All those opposed to Gov. Mills’ order are using the separation clause as a shield to justify exceeding the order’s attendance limits.

If these religious complaints were genuinely based on the Constitution’s wall of separation between church and state, these religious leaders would demand the government tax church property. Not taxing religious property is equivalent to the government funding religion, a clear violation of the separation clause.

They would also refuse any financial support from state and federal governments. Government support of religions with tax money everyone else has to pay is a part of the problem. Everyone else must pay more in taxes to compensate for the revenue shortfall when religions don’t pay their fair share.

But there is the rub. All religions, conservative and liberal, Christian and not, profess to uphold the Constitution. Yet, when it comes to finances, every religion takes the money and runs. Doing so is a clear example of ignoring the separation clause. So much for equal justice and morality.

When religious institutions use the Constitution’s separation clause as a shield when it suits their purpose and ignore it when it doesn’t, it becomes apparent religious privilege is their goal, not religious freedom as they claim. That works when Christianity is the privileged majority but, with changing demographics, that may not always be the case. If another religion becomes dominant and believers get elected to Congress, they may push their religious agenda as Christians are doing now. When that happens, the Christian minority will howl. Suddenly, the First Amendment’s separation of church and state clause will be sacrosanct.

When another religion wields power, the freedom of religion ruse will be replaced with a genuine argument for the freedom from religion.

I urge all religions to start regarding the First Amendment’s separation clause as sacrosanct now because it protects the religious and secular communities no matter which religion is dominant.

——Unfortunately, most religions want what they can get now and will argue for more privilege for the foreseeable future.

Tom Waddell is president of the Maine Chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. He welcomes comments at [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.