Judiciary and some Catholic bishops seek to undo church/state separation
By Mary E. Hunt
July 18, 2022
The big, but not only, religion story in the United States is the Supreme Court’s overturn of Roe v Wade. Abortion is no longer a constitutionally protected right. For the first time in American history a right, once granted, has been rescinded. With abortion laws reverting to the decision-makers in individual states, soon half of the country’s citizens will be unable to access nearby reproductive health services.
The singular focus on abortion misses other distressing religion-related trends. Seven of the nine current justices, whose appointments are for life, come from the Roman Catholic tradition. Three of them were nominated by Donald Trump to fulfill his campaign promise of a socially conservative judiciary.
Six justices made decisions this season that show they favour individual rights over a long-held policy of separation of church and state. This super majority might overturn other precedents like contraception, marriage equality and privacy rights. How would any of this play in Ireland?
Two other cases from the court’s recent docket give me pause.
First, the state of Maine determined that since its public schools were few and far between, it would give state money to private non-sectarian schools to assure equal access to education. In this case, Carson v Makin, the conservative justices decided that Maine’s non-sectarian requirement violated the constitutional right to free exercise of religion.
Private schools, including Catholic schools that might discriminate against LGBTIQ students and/or staff, would be eligible for state funds. That slippery slope prompted liberal Catholic Justice Sonya Sotomayor to write, “With growing concern for where this court will lead us next, I respectfully dissent.” It is new in the US for private schools that discriminate to be reimbursed by the Government.
Kneeling and praying
A second chilling case is Kennedy v Bremerton School District where a Christian football coach was in the habit of kneeling and praying at the 50 yard line after games. Players were not compelled to join him. But with social pressure on them, their worry, that not participating would reflect on their commitment to the team, was real.
The same six conservative justices opted for the free speech argument, rejecting the reality that high school students may feel compelled to participate in the prayer to stay in the good graces of the coach. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor wrote: “This decision does a disservice to schools and the young citizens they serve, as well as to our nation’s longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state.”
Would the decision have been the same if the coach had pulled out a prayer rug or donned a yarmulke?
In the US constitution, the first amendment right to free speech is balanced by prohibitions against the establishment of a state religion. Church-state matters make for hard cases.
Another case that sent shivers up the spines of progressive Americans was West Virginia v Environmental Protection Agency. By ruling that Congress must explicitly order the EPA to limit greenhouse gases rather than give general guidelines, the court took power away from a federal agency. This effectively limits the US’s possibility of reaching global climate change goals any time soon since many congressional members do not prioritise the environment.
Writing for the three dissenters, Justice Elena Kagan said: “The court today prevents congressionally authorised agency action to curb power plants’ carbon dioxide emissions. The court appoints itself – instead of Congress or the expert agency – the decision-maker on climate policy. I cannot think of many things more frightening.”
From a high polluting country that uses far more than its share of natural resources, this decision has devastating global implications. Countering Pope Francis’s important and popular encyclical Laudato Sí, the conservative Catholic justices have effectively declared: Laudato No.
Sobering as the ramifications of these decisions may be, the story to watch is the rise of White Christian Nationalism (WCN). This interdenominational social movement includes, but is not publicly led by, some Catholic bishops. Their “pre-eminent priority” on abortion bans is part of the larger conservative agenda.
WCN is a framework for rethinking the whole American experiment as if church and state should be one. It runs counter to trends in one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world where a growing number of people do not adhere to any religious tradition.
Groups like the Patriot Academy, Patriots Arise and the National Association of Christian Lawmakers are gradually coming into public view. The movement is bent on legislation. For example, Colorado Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert opined: “The church is supposed to direct the government, the government is not supposed to direct the church… I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk.”
White Christian Nationalism remains a marginal view. But the convergence of the Bible and conspiracy theories that these people peddle can be lethal. Like Covid, it could spread anywhere in the world.
This article was first published in The Irish Times, which can be found here.