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Op-ed: Separation of church and state remains crucial

In a decision handed down on July 21 (Carson v. Makin), the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of forcing taxpayers in the state of Maine to fund religious education. To quote Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “This nation was built on the promise of religious freedom, which has always prevented the state from using its taxing power to force citizens to fund religious worship or education. Here, the court has violated that founding principle by requiring Maine to tax citizens to fund religious schools. Far from honoring religious freedom, this decision tramples the religious freedom of everyone. Worse, the court has opened the door to government-enforced tithing, an invitation religious extremists will not ignore.”

Andrew Seidel, constitutional scholar and attorney specializing in First Amendment constitutional jurisprudence, has pointed out that “One of this country’s first religious freedom laws [the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom] warned that taxing citizens and giving the money to churches is ‘sinful and tyrannical.’ The right to be free from that compulsion is the bedrock of religious liberty.” This decision, as Justice Stephen Breyer pointed out in his dissent, “has the potential to dismantle secular public education in the United States.”

Writing for the publication Slate, Mark Joseph Stern summed the decision up very well:

“The conservative majority, however, has perfected the art of ignoring genuine discrimination while perceiving anti-Christian persecution where none exists. In the process, they are elevating the rights of one sect over all others. Carson will not benefit any religious minorities; there are not enough Muslims or Jews to create a school in the far-flung corners of Maine. Every time Roberts uses the word ‘religion,’ he might as well be saying ‘Christian.’ The right will praise Carson as a triumph of religious liberty. But if you practice religion that does not stand to gain from the ruling, your liberty does not matter to this Supreme Court.”

Stern goes on to point out that the Supreme Court is, in actuality, forcing the state of Maine to fund discrimination: “The two Maine schools that may now receive public funding are openly discriminatory, expelling students and teachers who do not adhere to evangelical Christianity. LGBTQ students, as well as straight children of same-sex couples, are not welcome, nor are LGBTQ teachers. Even custodians must be born-again Christians. One school teaches students to ‘refute the teachings of the Islamic religion’ and believe that men serve as the head of the household. Another requires students to sign a ‘covenant’ promising to glorify Jesus Christ and attend weekly religious services.”

Gaslighting and projection by Christian nationalists is nonstop in this country right now. I attended the last Parkersburg City Council meeting recently and witnessed a perfect example. A Councilwoman who cosponsored a resolution to place the saying of the pledge of allegiance on City Council agendas suggested that the council might be sued (alluding to me in the audience, given my recent victory in federal district court enjoining the council from saying the Lord’s Prayer at public meetings) for saying the pledge of allegiance, and that therefore it was crucial to make the pledge part of the official proceedings so that there would be recognition by the governing body that we are “one nation, under god.”

Never mind that the words “under god” were not added to the pledge of allegiance until 1954 or that no one, myself included, has even hinted that the council will be sued to stop the saying of the pledge of allegiance at the commencement of proceedings. This Councilwoman had an axe to grind in front of some like-minded audience members and that was that. Fortunately, the Council President and other members of the council saw through this, recognized it as performative, and the resolution went down in a 4-4 vote as one councilperson was absent. I applaud those on council who refused to tolerate this nonsense.

The separation of state and church is absolutely crucial for freedom both of and from religion. SCOTUS has dealt this founding principle another blow but the fight continues for a secular government and a pluralistic society. Refusal to tolerate coercion is not persecution.

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Eric Engle is assistant state director for American Atheists in West Virginia.

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