By Dave Churvis
It is axiomatic to Church & State readers that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the separation of church and state. That principle was put in place largely as a protection for religion – to keep government from interfering with the right to practice one’s faith.
But in the last 50 years or so, and accelerating, the Religious Right has treated church-state separation as an attack on religion and joined battle: Something to purposely fight, circumscribe or ignore.
In November, U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) wrote in The Washington Times, “The erroneous wall-of-separation doctrine narrows the role of religion in public discourse, fueling the view that religion is a private matter rather than a fundamental precept of American civil society.”
Hatch seems to have forgotten the way early practitioners of his faith, Mormonism, were treated, including being driven out of communities and subject to violence. A sturdy First Amendment is all that has traditionally stood between Hatch and government-approved religious persecution of minority believers like himself. Too bad he can’t see today in the context of that sweep of history. His myopia has rather negative repercussions for us all.
For no group is that more true than the more than 50 million secular Americans who identify as non-religious. I am the program manager of the Openly Secular campaign, representing the combined efforts of over two dozen secular organizations and founded in 2014 with the mission of reducing the stigma surrounding non-belief by asking secular people to come forward and live openly. It is a campaign of social equity that reaches out to civil-rights groups and, yes, to religious people and institutions to join us as allies.
The protection of the wall between church and state matters deeply to Openly Secular. Once that wall begins eroding, it becomes easier to attack and restrict the rights of atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and non-believers (not to mention Muslims, Jews and other minority religions).
This is not simply academic. Non-believers have more to worry about in today’s America than do most religious people (with the likely exception of Muslims these days). We are routinely insulted and marginalized despite legal protections. For instance, while the Constitution’s Article VI specifies, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,” seven states retain constitutional provisions forbidding nonbelievers from holding public office.
True, the limits are not enforceable, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 1961 Torcaso v. Watkins decision, but states leave the language on the books, sending an unmistakable message that non-believers are not only unqualified to hold public office they are not equal under the law.
It’s no surprise, then, that these discriminatory provisions are invoked for political gains. During a 2014 runoff race for the Austin, Texas, City Council, one candidate smeared her ostensibly non-believer opponent by invoking the Texas Constitution to insist he was unqualified for office.
Why would an attack like this work? Public attitudes are clear. Significant percentages of Americans view non-believers with suspicion and disdain. In a 2015 Gallup Poll, only 58 percent of Americans said they would vote for an otherwise well-qualified candidate who is an atheist for president, second lowest to a socialist.
This is not lost on the GOP, where those attitudes are most likely to fester and perpetuate. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, not one to let pass an opportunity to divide Americans, has said, “Any president who doesn’t begin every day on his knees isn’t fit to be commander-in-chief of this nation.”
Cruz may be able to pile on now, but those insults are ringing in the ears of a growing populace. Unaffiliated Americans are the largest growing cohort in America. From 2007 to 2014 the unaffiliated (“nones”) grew from 16 percent to nearly 23 percent of the American population – more numerous than either mainline Protestants or Catholics. The secularist wing is deeply misunderstood. Here’s what is important to know: Most secular people respect people of all faith traditions. After all, they are our family, friends and neighbors. But secular people want to be respected too.
One way to gain that respect would be for all Americans who believe that the freedom of (and from) religion is a bedrock principle of American democracy, to work together to preserve the separation of church and state. Preserving this wall affirms the so-very-American commitment to treating everyone equally and complying with the U.S. Constitution – principles that believers and non-believers alike should wholeheartedly support.
Dave Churvis is the Program Manager for Openly Secular