November 2023 Church & State Magazine - November 2023

With All Due Respect: Dear Supreme Court justices, please stop undermining the separation of church and state

  Chris Highland

Your Honors, 

As a citizen of these United States, I feel compelled to stand up and speak out to honor both your historic role on the highest court of the land and to honor the long, multifarious history of religious experience and expression in America.

Equal justice for all: Is the Supreme Court tilting toward conservative Christianity? (Getty Images)

As I write, I have in mind the wise teachings of the Roman Stoic philosopher, Lucius Seneca, who wrote at the time of Jesus: “Let us grant to our soul that peace which will be provided by constant study of beneficial instruction, by noble actions, and a mind fixed on desire only for what is honorable” (On Anger). This sentiment is echoed in the biblical exhortation: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).  

It is in this spirit of honor that I address you at this time. 

As a religious professional throughout my entire adult life — having served as a pastor, a chaplain, a director and manager of ecumenical nonprofit work, a teacher and writer — I have personal and practical knowledge of many religious traditions. (As a Humanist, I was married to my Presbyterian minister wife in a ceremony in a Buddhist temple by officiants representing Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Wiccan traditions, symbolizing the rich diversity and cooperative nature of religion in our nation.)  

The first class I taught after graduating from an evangelical college was on World Religions. For years I taught courses in congregations on World Wisdom and led countless discussion groups on faith in county jails, homeless shelters and other venues. Rather than a proselytizing ministry, this was a collaborative effort centered in “compassionate presence” with neighbors in need, whoever they may be.

As judges, you might give lectures from time to time, but you are not teachers. You may offer guidance on some health regulations, but you are not doctors. You may think of yourselves as “originalists,” but you are not historians. Likewise, you may deliver judgements on religion, but you are not religious pastors, priests or professors.  For obvious reasons, you do not have the depth of education and experience that professionals like me have regarding religion in its broadest, most diverse, and frankly its most American expressions. With all due respect, having been involved in the diversity of religious experience and beliefs in America for many years, I think you would do well to listen and learn from people like my wife and me.

To my knowledge, each of you has sincerely held beliefs. This should be respected. No one argues that you cannot or should not carry your personal beliefs into your honorable positions on the court. You have as much right as any appointed or elected officials in the country to engage in religion on a personal level. However, no matter your personal devotion, because your decisions profoundly impact the entire country, each of you must be consistently cognizant of and considerate toward the spectrum of spiritual opinions freely held by the populous.  

Allow me to use an analogy that has worked well in my classes: Religion has deep roots in America. The Tree of Faith thrives in a healthy environment that nurtures free expression of belief. While it is true that many branches of Christianity have flourished in the country, these are only limbs of a spreading and fruitful tree. Protecting smaller twigs (e.g., minority faiths) is critically important, yet it is a serious violation of the Constitution to give preference or privilege to any one offshoot from this thriving historic giant.           

For instance, in the matter of a woman’s right to her own medical decisions, particularly in terminating a pregnancy, there are voices of faithful citizens on all sides of this issue. While many Roman Catholics along with evangelicals are opposed to abortion and wish to restrict the private choices of a woman and her doctor, there are also large numbers of believers who are equally committed to defending those personal choices. Among these are whole denominations such as the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Methodist Church.  

These all have officially sanctioned beliefs and sacred principles that allow for abortions. In addition, large numbers of Roman Catholics, at variance with official Church teachings, support a woman’s choice. Majorities of Hispanic Catholics (61%), white Catholics (62%) and other Catholics of color (71%) believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to data from the 2022 Public Religion Research Institute survey.  

Along with these Christian Americans, there are Reform and Conservative Jewish Americans who include reproductive care in their belief systems. Additionally, minority religions such as the Satanic Temple (devoted to critical thinking without an actual devil) also claim the freedom for their members to make medical decisions for themselves, guided by their sincerely held beliefs. 

A number of your decisions in matters of religion have serious consequences for all Americans. When you claim to rule for “religious liberty,” it often seems you are actually favoring one particular sectarian branch of the Tree of Faith, giving preference to one limb — the conservative Christian limb. This favoritism has no place in our legal decisions and laws in a land guided by a secular Constitution.

With all due respect to you, and the one branch of Christians you appear to favor, I must remind you: It is imperative that you listen to the whole chorus of voices representing faith traditions across the land. Many of these believers join with the growing number of Americans who do not have a faith affiliation in defense of the historic principle of separation between religion and government.  This must be honored in every decision. The law does not allow religious doctrines to discriminate, or sectarian creeds to dominate, especially when those practices harm others or when theological texts are used as weapons against other citizens.  

I trust you will afford free believers and freethinkers like myself the same due respect we afford you. I urge you to let “whatever is honorable” guide your critical decisions on behalf of all Americans. 

With all due honor and respect,

Chris Highland  


Chris Highland served as a Protestant minister and interfaith chaplain for many years in the San Francisco area. Now a humanist celebrant, he teaches and writes in Asheville, N.C., where he lives with his wife, the Rev. Carol Hovis. His website is “Friendly Freethinker” (

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