LGBTQ Equality

AU Student Contest second-place college essay: Religious fundamentalism influencing anti-trans and anti-abortion legislation

  Aria Swenk

Editor’s Note: This week, “The Wall of Separation” blog is featuring the essays and videos submitted by the winners of Americans United’s 2023 AU Student Contest, which asked high school and college students to reflect on their vision for church-state separation. Submissions have been edited lightly and do not necessarily reflect the views of Americans United.

By Aria Swenk of Tulsa, Oklahoma

I am sure it goes without saying that there is a wave of anti-abortion and anti-transgender pieces of legislation sweeping the country at the moment. Abortion has already been outlawed completely or nearly completely in twenty-four states. Transgender care restrictions have been introduced in twenty-two states and already passed in ten, with several more poised to make these restrictions into law within the year. This includes Oklahoma, where my family lives, and where I live too for six months out of the year. I also just so happen to be a transgender woman. I know about the severity of these restrictions because I have been greatly affected by them. 

The justification for these restrictions? What else, but religious fundamentalism. I am a member of a quirky, little-known religious tradition known as Unitarian Universalism, so I am well aware of the importance of respecting the rights of people to practice their religion unfettered. My religion doesn’t wield much influence at all, and so we are reliant on external entities like the government to support and protect our freedom to practice.

This is one of the greatest things about the United States: This fundamental commitment to making sure that everyone has the right to seek out and practice whatever religion or spiritual tradition is most fulfilling for them. I believe very strongly in this right that has been enshrined in the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which is why it makes me sad to see these increasing attacks on the fundamental freedom for women and trans people to make their own medical decisions being made with religious justification.

As much as I support the right for conservative religious groups to exist, I draw the line at them making attempts at influencing the government to force women and trans people to conform to their views. Government never has been, nor ever will be, an instrument for religious enforcement and proselytizing. Some of these organizations or fundamentalist politicians will try and make the argument that these bans and restrictions aren’t about forcing their religious views upon the general populace against the explicit guidance of the Constitution, but rather are about “health” or “safety” or “parental rights.” However, the simple truth of the matter is that these excuses are just that– excuses, meant to cover up their actual religious bent. 

Further, these policies that have explicitly religious justification skirt dangerously close to supporting small, fundamentalist Christian traditions as the state religion. This flies in the face of the First Amendment rights every citizen holds to be free from state-enforced religious practices. It also heavily implies that the government favors these fundamentalist Christian ideals over the ideals of other religious groups. In a vast swath of the Jewish tradition, the right women have to abortions is a religious view, backed up by Jewish scripture and teachings going back generations. Does that religious view matter less than the conservative views of fundamentalist Christians? The passage of these laws certainly seems to send that message. 

With all of that established, I think it is important to outline a vision for a future where the church doesn’t interfere with the affairs of the state. People tend to think that the freedom of religion means that you may practice whichever religion you choose. This is true. However, it is also freedom from religion, meaning that in the United States, religion is not a valid justification for policy making. Individuals have the right to practice whichever religion they choose, or not practice altogether, and still have access to all of the same services and comforts of modern society including jobs, healthcare, and civil protections. In my mind, a society where state and church are separate is a society in which everyone has the ability to practice their spiritual tradition however they choose, and also maintain access to quality care, housing, work, and services. They are allowed to make the medical decisions they deem to be best for themselves and are guaranteed the right to privacy. 

I recognize that at this moment, such a vision may seem like a bit of a pipe dream. I will concede that in the face of sweeping restrictions and rampant hate and extremism in the media, it can feel hopeless. We must remember that these freedoms – the freedom to make our own medical decisions, the freedom to privacy from religious fundamentalists, and more – were our reality for fifty years while Roe v. Wade stood. With the hard work and advocacy of millions of people across the country, it can be again. 

I mentioned earlier that I live in Oklahoma for a few months out of the year, where some of the most intense restrictions in the country on transgender care and women’s healthcare rights have been proposed or enacted. This stands in stark contrast to where I live the rest of the year – Colorado. In Colorado, the state legislature has acted quickly and decisively to protect the rights of Coloradoans to make their own medical decisions without religious infringement. I view Colorado as a model for the rest of the nation, as Colorado was able to strike a balance between maintaining our fundamental freedoms and respecting the rights of niche religious traditions to practice however they choose within their own spaces. It is a shining example of how these policies don’t need to be hostile or even ambivalent. They can be compassionate, proactive, and effective. 

Overall, I believe strongly in the separation between church and state, and I continue to be appalled by the continued attacks on personal rights and freedoms backed by religious reasoning. In an ideal society, where everyone is welcome to practice (or not practice) however they choose, I envision a flourishing increase in freedoms, safety, and harmony.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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