The separation of religion and government is a basic human right. Lately, almost every news story out of Iran forcibly drags that thought to the forefront of my brain.
The protests against Iran’s clerical regime and that regime’s responses — arrests, violence and death sentences — crystallize this more basic understanding of church-state separation. Various human rights watch groups put the death toll around 350 dead, including some 50 children. Another 15,000 have been arrested. Reports that all 15,000 were also sentenced to death appear to have been exaggerated, but death sentences have been handed out. And most members of the Iranian parliament called for “decisive action” against those who had “incited” the protests. The chief of the judiciary agreed, demanding that “key perpetrators” be severely sentenced to deter others and that “rioters” could be charged with “moharebeh” (enmity against God), among other crimes. This carries the death penalty.
Iran’s ‘Morality Police’
These protests were sparked after Iran’s “morality police,” which is charged with enforcing the country’s oppressive dress codes for women, arrested 22-year-old Mahsa Amini for allegedly not wearing a hijab properly. Eyewitnesses say the police beat her to death. (The morality police are really just a form of religious police. Just as Justice Samuel A. Alito cloaked the imposition of religion in the language of morality in his Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, so too does the morality police mask its goals.)
The religious police arrested Amini for “justification and education” about the hijab, which sounds like something out of 1984. The existence of a theocracy, let alone a police force to enforce that regime, violates our basic humanity. The alleged crime is “enmity against God.” For speaking out. For refusing to wear a piece of clothing. For exercising freedom of thought and expression. For thoughtcrime. And that is precisely why separating religion and government is a basic human right: freedom of thought.
Look closely at the six rights protected in our First Amendment: secular government, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, free assembly, and the right to petition our government for redress. The common thread weaving these rights together is the freedom of thought. These rights are meant to protect our right to think freely and to communicate those thoughts to others without government interference or censorship.
Separation: A Fundamental Human Right
Here in the U.S., we often talk about the separation of religion and government as a constitutional command or a metaphorical wall. When exploring the foundations of the principle, we expound the ways it reinforces and guarantees freedom and democracy. That this separation is a prerequisite for freedom and democracy because shielding our shared laws from any religion’s influence frees us to come together as equals and build a stronger democracy. The separation of religion and government is all of these and more. But it’s also simpler.
The separation of religion and government is a basic human right.
Photo: Protestors in Berlin oppose Iran’s treatment of women. Getty Images.