Last week I had the opportunity to present the first in a series of talks on the First Amendment hosted by the Massachusetts Association of Women Lawyers. I spoke to a group of lawyers and law students about the rise of the new religious freedom movement and its impact on civil liberties. Called “Dismantling the Wall: Women’s Rights and Civil Liberties in the Post-Establishment Clause Era (or Life After Hobby Lobby)”, it was an overview of separation of religion and state jurisprudence prior to The Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, and the aftermath of that radical reinterpretation of the First Amendment religion clauses. The talk was well-received, and the Q and A session afterwards was lively and reflected many different perspectives, which always keeps things interesting. Perhaps the most gratifying aspect of the evening was hearing from several attendees that they were unaware of the extent to which this concerted effort to marginalize the Establishment Clause into total irrelevance was happening, and the ramifications for all of our civil liberties.
As I prepared for this talk, and for others in the same vein, I reflected on why I chose this. There are certainly more lucrative ways to put a law degree to use than research, analysis and commentary on religion-state issues. And how can this compare to areas of the law that involve life and death decisions? I used to represent local departments of social services in child abuse and neglect proceedings, so I know first-hand what practicing law while confronting the worst that humans can be and do feels like. This passion to see one of the crucial provisions of our Constitution upheld and enforced may appear to be unrelated to my previous work in child protective law, but there is a connection. So many Establishment clause cases originate in public school settings. Students and their families are confronted by a culture that demands conformity to a religious norm in an environment that is supposed to be free of religious coercion. Children are invariably harmed, whether through direct harassment or inappropriate, inadequate lessons that leave them unequipped to meet the challenges of the modern world. And everyone loses out when the government allows discrimination disguised as religion. We all have something at stake.
So, in no particular order, a short list of reasons why I do what I do:
Because on November 10, Texas State Senator Donna Campbell proposed an amendment to the Texas constitution which would enshrine the right of business owners to discriminate against LGBT individuals on the basis of religious belief.
Because if women’s healthcare is challenged at every juncture, it becomes so remote that women are relegated to second-class citizenship.
Because if women cannot control their own bodies, and hence their own destinies, they become second-class citizens.
Because twenty states have enacted Religious Freedom Restoration Acts which are increasingly being used to justify discriminatory practices.
Because towns and municipalities all over the country are spending time enacting prayer policies and dealing with demands to declare Christianity the official religion of many towns, all of which takes valuable time away from ordinary civic duties and issues that affect all residents.
Because a Unitarian Universalist Church in Arkansas had its windows shot out by people claiming to be “real Southerners” in retaliation for the Church’s welcoming, inclusive policies.
Because a young student in Ohio had a cross branded on his arm by a Tesla Coil-wielding, public school science teacher who considered it his mission to educate students in the teacher’s own fundamentalist strain of Christianity, and decorated his classroom with Bibles, posters displaying Bible verses, and Christian religious imagery.
Because a little boy in Louisiana of Thai ethnicity, who was also a practicing Buddhist, was called stupid by his teacher for not being a Christian, and told he should move away.
Because two courthouses in Kentucky posted the Ten Commandments on the walls as a declaration that this is a Christian nation whose laws emanate from a Judeo-Christian tradition and that is the population the laws are meant to serve and protect.
Because for-profit employers aren’t supposed to be able to ask about an employee’s religious beliefs, but employees will be forced to enter the discussion so they can figure out whether they will have access to healthcare.
Because if schools present religious mythology as fact, and our children and young people are, therefore, prevented from learning about science, they will be poorly served educationally, and utterly unprepared to confront the realities of the world and the needs of the planet.
And finally (for now), because we are at the top of the food chain, we owe a duty to ourselves and each other, as well as the plants and other animals we share this space with, to preserve the only home we have. And we can’t do that if a burgeoning theocratic movement keeps us under the sway of religious notions which prevent us from acknowledging the problems that must be addressed, and recognizing the devastating consequences of our collective, willful ignorance.