With March marking Women’s History Month, we are recognizing the important role that women have played in fighting for the separation of church and state and religious freedom – an impact that’s often been overlooked despite our nation's history of discriminating against women on the basis of religion. The way that we document history, the sources we save and the voices we privilege make it seem as though there are not many women who have played prominent roles in the fight for religious freedom in the United States. Of course, this is not the case. Women were integral in the fight for church-state separation and, thankfully, we have evidence about the contributions of many of them.
One of the great women advocating for church-state separation and religious freedom is current U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (the “Notorious R.B.G.”), who has consistently ruled in favor of the separation of church and state.
Throughout her career, Ginsburg has fought and continues to fight through the obstacles of sexism and anti-Semitism. In 1993, she become the first Jewish woman on the Supreme Court – becoming an inspiration for women who are religious minorities nationwide. Rachel K. Laser, AU’s new executive director who is the both the first woman and the first Jewish person to lead the organization, on International Women’s Day this year noted her admiration for Ginsburg: “Ruth Bader Ginsburg is my role model because she is a Jewish woman who challenged and overcame the sexist expectations of her times, and has spent her life powerfully advocating for equality and opportunity.”
Ginsburg, who self-describes as a “flaming feminist litigator,” worked as a volunteer lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union fighting for women’s rights before joining the Supreme Court, where she continues to protect marginalized communities.
When the Supreme Court in 2014 sided with Hobby Lobby, a corporation that uses religion to discriminate against its employees’ health care choices, Ginsburg wrote a strong dissent as to why religious freedom is no excuse to deny others health care and how the favorable ruling for Hobby Lobby sets a dangerous precedent.
“Religious organizations exist to foster the interests of persons subscribing to the same religious faith. Not so of for-profit corporations. Workers who sustain the operations of those corporations commonly are not drawn from one religious community,” she wrote. “Indeed, by law, no religion-based criterion can restrict the work force of for-profit corporations...The distinction between a community made up of believers in the same religion and one embracing persons of diverse beliefs, clear as it is, constantly escapes the Court’s attention. One can only wonder why the Court shuts this key difference from sight.”
In 2015, Ginsburg joined the Supreme Court majority when it ruled that Arkansas Muslim prisoner Gregory Holt, who goes by the name Abdul Maalik Muhammed, can grow a beard for religious purposes.
In the concurring opinion of the case, Ginsburg wrote, “Unlike the exemption this Court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief.”
The same year, in Obergefell v. Hodges, Ginsburg once again stood up for a marginalized community – this time LGBTQ people – by voting in favor of marriage equality, making it the law of the land nationwide.
“I think of how the constitution begins – ‘We the people of the United States, in order to form a perfect union,’” Ginsburg said in 2014. “But we’re still striving for that more perfect union. And one of the perfections is for ‘we the people’ to include an ever enlarged group.”
Although these are merely a few of her contributions, Ginsburg has made many throughout her career and continues to do so. This Women’s History Month, we thank her and the many women continuing to make history and protect church-state separation and religious freedom.
(Photo: Screenshot of Ruth Bader Ginsburg interview on Yahoo News.)