Editor’s Note: Americans United staff members have been pulling together material to illustrate what’s at stake in the battle over filling Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat. We’ve been exploring these issues over the past few days. Today’s final installment looks at how the rights of non-Christians and non-believers might be affected.
Among other things, separation of church and state means that all people, whether they choose to be religious or not, will be treated equally by the government. A government that is neutral on religion does not care how, where, when or if a citizen worships.
That’s the ideal. But any fair reading of American history shows that it took a lot of hard work, often through the courts, to bring this promise to life. The country’s Christian majority often assumed a position of privilege, and non-Christian faiths and non-believers had to fight for their rights.
This battle still rages today. Americans United was among several organizations that fought President Donald Trump’s cruel Muslim Ban. Over the years, we’ve also tracked a number of cases dealing with Muslim groups that sought to win zoning variances to build mosques. These variances were routinely granted to Christian churches but denied to Islamic groups.
In a host of other issues touching on questions like the rights of prison inmates, the rights of students in public schools, the right to receive service in a public business and others, religious minorities and non-believers had to engage in protracted legal or political battles to secure rights that the Christian majority takes for granted. (In 2006, Americans United had to go to court to convince the Department of Veterans Affairs to allow a Wiccan symbol to appear on the headstone of a fallen soldier, a right that was granted to many other religious groups automatically.)
The Supreme Court has already moved to grant the majority faith special status in some cases. A towering Christian cross on public land in a Maryland community was deemed an acceptable war memorial in 2019 simply because of its age. The high court has also upheld private school voucher plans, even though most of the taxpayer money ends up in the coffers of private Christian schools.
The government also constantly promotes the idea that being religious is a good thing, that it is closely linked to being a true American. Proof of this can be found in the coins jingling in your pocket, and you’ll hear it the next time you recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Non-believers are especially troubled by these examples of civil religion.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg understood that the government must never make anyone feel like an outsider based on what they believe or don’t believe about God. During her 1993 confirmation hearings, she remarked, “I am alert to discrimination. I grew up during World War II in a Jewish family. I have memories as a child, even before the war, of being in a car with my parents and passing a place … with a sign out in front that read: ‘No dogs or Jews allowed.’”
Ginsburg’s passing means that the rights of religious minorities and of those who hold no religious beliefs are definitely at risk. Our next Supreme Court justice must acknowledge the reality of religious diversity in America and ensure that the government does not grant preference to members of the majority faith or take away the rights of those who belong to minority religions or who don’t believe at all.
Americans United is fighting to ensure that Ginsburg’s replacement is someone who understands the real promise of church-state separation. You can help by supporting our work