The Supreme Court’s recent (and horrendous) ruling in the Hobby Lobby case dealing with workers’ access to contraceptives has turned the spotlight on the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the group that sponsored many of the legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate.
Profiles of the group and its founder, Kevin J. “Seamus” Hasson, appeared in The Washington Post and the Salt Lake City Deseret News. Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn was quoted in both stories.
Lynn would be the first to agree that on a personal level, Hasson is charming and affable. Having met him once myself, I’m inclined to agree. Unlike a lot of the Religious Right figures I’ve met over the years, the down-to-earth Hasson is not dour and has a way of putting people at ease.
You might enjoy quaffing a beer with Hasson, but that doesn’t mean he’s right about “culture war” issues. In fact, he couldn’t be more wrong. Furthermore, Hasson has been dealing with some serious health issues lately, and in his absence the Becket Fund is being run by a man named William P. Mumma.
A flavor of Mumma’s views can perhaps be discerned in a comment he made to the Deseret News about Americans United: “The truth is the organization was founded in 1947, has made the same arguments for decades. And in the 22 years Barry has headed the organization, has seen the American public and the Supreme Court turn decisively away from American United's faded arguments.”
Let’s unpack that a bit. It’s true that Americans United was founded in 1947. That was the year of a famous Supreme Court church-state ruling called Everson v. Board of Education. In that decision, a unanimous high court endorsed the wall of separation between church and state. But the decision also contained troubling signs that the court was willing to embrace some forms of taxpayer aid to religion.
Americans United’s founders were concerned. And that wasn’t the only thing that concerned them.
From a church-state perspective, the America of 1947 would be unrecognizable to many people today. In many states, it was illegal for anyone – even married couples – to use birth control. Books, magazines, movies and stage plays were subjected to religiously-based censorship. Many public schools began the day with mandatory Christian prayers and/or Bible reading. In some states, it was illegal to teach evolution. Women had very few rights; economically, they were dependent on their husbands. Jews were not permitted to join certain organizations, and anti-Semitic prejudice was common. Needless to say, gay people stayed deep in the closet. Atheists tended to keep a low profile as well. Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, etc. were few and far between and didn’t press for their rights.
AU’s founders looked at this situation and knew that it had to change. To be fair, some of these issues – like gay rights – weren’t on the minds of many people back then and were added to the plate later. But, by grasping the idea that society should not have to bow to the dominant religious view, AU (and other organizations) helped pave the way for a fairer, more just nation.
In short, AU was founded to push the nation forward. The view of the group’s founders was that only a strict application of separation of church and state could achieve that goal.
Did we win every battle? Of course not. But if you look at American society today and compare it to 1947, you can’t help but be impressed. We’re a freer, more open nation. Obviously, many factors, many individuals and many organizations played a role in these changes. But the point is that things did change – for the better.
Mumma asserts that the American public has rejected AU’s arguments. He needs to look at the polling data over the issue of contraceptive access. It’s not even close; his side is losing. People are angry over the Hobby Lobby ruling. In my 26 years at Americans United, I have not seen a church-state ruling that got people so fired up. If Mumma thinks the Hobby Lobby ruling is the end of this discussion, he is sadly deluded.
I’d recommend that Mumma also take a look at the polls on the issue of same-sex marriage, which his group has steadfastly opposed. The ground is shifting beneath his feet. All of the snarky comments in the world won’t change that. The culture – not the courts – is leading here. As more and more Americans come to realize that true love and committed relationships are always worth celebrating, Mumma and his band of latter-day theocrats will be left behind, scratching their heads and fulminating that everyone should to listen to them. But they’ll be screaming into a void with fewer and fewer Americans listening.
Yes, Americans United was founded in 1947. Yes, we are making the same arguments for a secular state based on the separation of church and state that we made 67 years ago (and that leaders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison made 224 years ago). We make those arguments because they work; we make them because they protect the right of conscience and true liberty. We will continue to make them no matter how many lousy decisions Becket and its allies on the Religious Right wrench from this reactionary Supreme Court.
Our organization celebrates its past but recognizes that 1947 was just the beginning. We don’t want to go back there. I’m tempted to say that the Becket Fund does. But the truth is, given that group’s repressive vision for society and its belief that we should all knuckle under to the dictates of ultra-orthodox religious groups, its model for America actually comes from another time period – more like 1247.