February marks Black History Month, a month to appreciate the accomplishments that African-Americans have made throughout American history. This month, we are highlighting the important role African-American figures have played, and continue to play, in promoting true religious freedom and church-state separation.
Among the biggest advocates of church-state separation and religious freedom is civil rights icon U.S. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). Holmes Norton was the first woman appointed as chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and during her time there she worked on immensely important issues, including combatting religious discrimination, to protect the civil rights of all Americans, regardless of race, gender, religion and the like.
With her hefty resume of civil rights, it’s no surprise that Holmes Norton is a strong anti-voucher advocate in Congress. Voucher schemes remain a threat to civil rights and religious freedom because they don’t provide the same rights and protections to students as public schools, and selectively choose which students to serve. Studies also revealed that racial segregation is higher in private schools and that school voucher schemes favor white children.
With her hefty resume of civil rights, it’s no surprise that Holmes Norton is a strong anti-voucher advocate in Congress.
Vouchers have a troubling history. After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down segregation in public schools in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, officials in some counties, notably in Virginia, closed their public schools and gave white parents financial assistance to send their children to private academies that practiced segregation. In Congress, Holmes Norton has strongly opposed the D.C. voucher program, which is the only federally funded voucher program in the country.
In addition to pushing back against voucher programs that pick and choose which students to serve, Holmes Norton is also a critic of the government picking and choosing which religious groups they deem worthy of entering the country. She co-sponsored the Freedom of Religion Act, which would ensure that immigrants, refugees and international travelers are not barred from entering the United States solely because of their religion.
“The very first Americans were refugees from religious oppression. It is unthinkable that in the 21st century a religion bar would be considered,” Holmes Norton said of then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s plan to ban Muslims from entry to America. “Virtually every American believes there can be no religious test or exclusion of an immigrant to our country. That was the very first principle and it’s time we put that very first principle into law.”
More recently, Holmes Norton fought for women to protect a D.C. anti-discrimination law, the Reproductive Health Non-Discrimination Act, which prohibits employers from discriminating against employees based on their reproductive health care decisions – a law that the far-right has been attempting to prevent from being enforced by claiming “religious freedom” objections.
“No employer has the right to know, much less interfere, with the most private of health decisions of their employees,” she said.
Holmes Norton is also a fierce defender of the Johnson Amendment, a federal law that protects the integrity of houses of worship and nonprofits from politicians using them as campaign tools for endorsement. Throughout her defense of the law, which Trump vowed to “totally destroy,” Holmes Norton emphasized that houses of worship serve communities, not candidates.
“Clergy are among our most powerful groups and know how to make their voices heard to protect their unique place in American society, and the overwhelming majority of clergy oppose repealing the Johnson Amendment,” she said in a May statement after Trump signed a “religious freedom” executive order that he claimed (incorrectly) would weaken enforcement of the Johnson Amendment. “Clergy already enjoy great leeway in their houses of worship when it comes to political speech, and some of the most political figures in our country are ministers and rabbis.”
Holmes Norton’s contributions to civil rights and social justice in the United States are impressive, and we appreciate her including church-state separation and religious freedom among the important issues she continues to champion.