Occasionally I am asked how I got interested in church-state separation. Mandatory school prayer was common when I was in public schools, and that was part of it. I didn’t personally object to the content – the prayers were Christian and so was I. But then one of my closest friends, who was Jewish, told me how uncomfortable the daily ritual made him feel. I was, therefore, happy when the Supreme Court invalidated official school prayer in 1962 and we didn’t have to recite them anymore.
The big awakening for me, though, was in college. I had been a vigorous protester of the Vietnam War and had marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I saw myself as a pretty progressive guy.
A defining moment came during my sophomore year in college. Just before spring break, I asked one of my roommates about his plans. He replied, “I’m going to London, but this will not be any fun.” He explained that he was going with his then girlfriend who needed an abortion.
I was perplexed. Why go abroad? He explained to me that you couldn’t get this procedure done in most states because “the church” was against it and held enormous political power throughout the country. Since when did churches make laws for the whole country, I wondered naively.
I’ve thought a lot about this incident in the 25 years I’ve been at Americans United – and more in the past few years than ever. In the past four years, the Religious Right and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church have gone whole hog into renewed efforts to outlaw all abortions and transmogrified most forms of birth control into abortion-inducing chemicals (even though the medical community remains nearly uniformly unconvinced).
Moreover, the definition of “religious liberty” has swollen to encompass the belief that if a religious entity or individual claims a religious objection to a law, that law should be nullified for them.
As I write this, it is only days away from the Donald Trump inauguration and the subsequent Women’s March on Washington. This march, which Americans United and dozens of other groups have endorsed, will take place just one day after the inaugural events. It is not just about women’s reproductive rights, but that is certainly a huge motivating factor for the 200,000 people expected to come.
Former candidate Hillary Clinton once famously called for recognition that “women’s rights are human rights,” and that’s why the march includes so many issues. Ending violence, promoting civil liberties like freedom of speech and immigrants’ rights, are included. Although Americans United doesn’t work directly on some of these issues, it has become clear to me over the years that intensive right-wing religious efforts to alter the legislative landscape on these questions have poisoned the debate on all of them.
Today, we are justifiably concerned about the possibility of Trump’s starting a registry of Muslims in America (much as the notorious internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II began as a registry) or prohibiting members of the Islamic faith from entering the United States.
We have other concerns: As noted constitutional scholar Ian Millhiser wrote a few weeks ago, attorney general-designee Jeff Sessions’ understanding of free speech is so poor that he sought a criminal prosecution of Americans United in 1999 just because we sent letters to houses of worship reminding them that endorsing or opposing candidates for office is illegal under federal law.
My friend and Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff, who died recently at the age of 91, was a hardcore secularist who opposed legal abortion. He was also a rarity. The organized opposition to choice is funded and led by conservative religious groups. They lobby against it. They file lawsuits to block it. They succeed in persuading legislators to pass paternalistic laws designed to deny women agency and bodily self-determination.
Eighty-one percent of conservative evangelicals voted for Trump. He owes them and will deliver, unless events like the Women’s March (and its numerous “sister marches” around the country) wake up politicians to stop such actions.
Mass marches can change history. I don’t know whether this one will, but I do know that what we’re facing is serious. If we don’t raise our voices now, we’ll have to answer to a generation yet to come whose rights are steadily being eroded.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.