By Richard E. Wackrow | 16 March 2017
Lurking in the shadows behind fake accusations about fake news, controversies surrounding kitchen appliances spying on us, and the false hope of seeing all those long-ago-promised income tax returns is an abiding agenda to convert nominally secular America into a Christian theocracy.
Despite the fact that the actual piety of Donald Trump has always been open to question, the list of people for whom he has expressed hatred nonetheless won him the votes of 81 percent of white evangelicals and 60 percent of Catholics in November. And lest we assume that Trump’s removal from office would make America secular again, an army of white supremacists and theocrats is waiting in the wings.
In what follows, I’ll examine the concept of “religious freedom” as it has been redefined by the religious right, and take a look at that concept in practice.
In 1983, Alfred Smith and Galen Black were fired from their jobs as substance-abuse counselors at a private drug-rehabilitation clinic in Oregon after they had tested positive for mescaline, the hallucinogenic compound found in the peyote cactus. Even though Smith and Black — members of the Native American Church (a.k.a. the Peyote Church) — had used peyote only during religious rituals and not on the job, the clinic dismissed the two for “misconduct.” Accordingly, the Employment Division of the Oregon Department of Human Resources denied the two men unemployment benefits — triggering a legal battle that finally found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1990.
In Employment Division v. Smith, the Court ruled in favor of the state of Oregon. The public outrage that ensued culminated with the passage of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993. It was supported by groups as diverse as the conservative Traditional Values Coalition and the National Association of Evangelicals, and the American Civil Liberties Union. The bill passed by a unanimous House vote and a 97-3 vote in the Senate, and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on November 16, 1993.
The religious right since has figured out how to use the 1993 RFRA to force Christianity on the rest of us — to the point that in 2015 the ACLU rescinded its support of it. And the theocrats have further applied a perverted version of the overall concept of religious freedom in an attempt to advance their agenda state by state.
The religious right’s perennial attacks against the doctrine of separation of church and state have included:
- Attempts to have creation myth taught in public-school science classes
- Attempts to fund Christian schools with taxpayer money through a voucher system
- Opposition to sex education in public schools
- Installing Ten Commandments and other religious monuments on the grounds of public buildings
- Repeated efforts to restore school prayer
- Reciting exclusively Christian prayers before government meetings
- Opposition to legalized assisted suicide
Added to this mix was the official perversion of the 1993 RFRA by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2014. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., the court ruled 5-4 that Hobby Lobby (a chain of about 600 arts-and-crafts stores) was, because of store founders David and Barbara Greens’ religious beliefs, entitled to exemption from Affordable Care Act rules requiring them to include all forms of contraception in employee health policies. (The Greens viewed the use of certain forms of birth control after conception, such as the Plan-B “morning-after pill,” as abortion.)
In her dissenting opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “In a decision of startling breadth, the Court holds that commercial enterprises … can opt out of any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs.” Ginsburg went on to warn, “Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious belief is offended by health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage.”
To be fair, there is more to this decision than simple misogyny on the part of the five male Roman Catholic justices who ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby. Republican opposition to Obamacare has been abiding. And in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (decided in January 2010), the court ruled that the freedom-of-expression provision of the First Amendment prohibited the government from restricting political contributions by corporations — thereby treating them as people.
The Christianists’ celebration of the Hobby Lobby ruling was short-lived, however. A year later, on June 26, 2015, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy broke ranks from his fellow male Roman Catholic colleagues on the court to cast the deciding vote legalizing same-sex marriage across America.
“No longer may this liberty be denied,” Kennedy wrote for the majority in the historic decision. “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were,” and that the plaintiffs in the case were seeking “equal dignity in the eyes of the law.”
According to public opinion polls taken before that decision, 57 percent of the U.S. population was in favor of granting same-sex couples the legal right to marry. And in June 2015, there were about twenty countries that had legalized same-sex marriage — the usual suspects in progressive Western Europe, plus (and get this!) countries with a Roman Catholic majority, such as Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Ireland.
At the time the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, there were RFRAs on the books in some twenty states, mostly modeled after the 1993 federal prototype. Perhaps because of the kerfuffle between gays and theocrats over the legalization of same-sex marriage in various states before the Supreme Court decision, RFRAs came to be regarded by the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community as solely anti-homosexual.
In February 2014, the Republican-controlled Arizona Legislature passed SB 1062, which expanded the scope of its existing RFRA to include the exemption of businesses from nondiscrimination laws regarding public accommodations. After hearing warnings about the dire economic effects that would result from the law — from, for example, Delta Air Lines Inc., the Super Bowl host committee, Major League Baseball and Senator John McCain — Governor Jan Brewer wisely vetoed the bill.
The scenario repeated itself in Indiana, where Republican Governor Mike Pence signed a similar RFRA bill, SB 101, into law on March 26, 2015. Among the many who voiced protests were the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook, the Disciples of Christ (which was planning a convention in Indiana), Angie’s List, and Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard (a Republican). On April 2, 2015, Pence signed a revised version of the bill, which he characterized as nondiscriminatory.
It is impossible not to notice how these issues have primarily revolved around sex (LGBT rights, same-sex marriage, abortion) and other religiously proscribed behaviors that do not contribute to maintaining the market share of Christian churches through procreation. Unfortunately, the perniciousness of these laws is much broader. In effect, RFRAs enable the religious to deny service to or discriminate against anyone who doesn’t share their dogma.
Also, it is impossible not to be awestruck by the Republicans’ deftness at imposing their medieval social agenda on an American public that is largely tolerant of the very victims of this new “religious freedom.”
This column was adapted from Richard E. Wackrow’s book Beginner’s Guide to Blasphemy.
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