The Universal Notebook: Courting theocracy

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If you were around in 1960 you may recall a lot of people worried that if John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, were elected president he would take orders from the Pope. The widespread concern about the constitutional separation of church and state forced Kennedy to make a speech clarifying his views on the matter.

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute,” Kennedy said, “where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.”

Freedom of religion used to mean that Americans were free to worship as they saw fit as long as they did not infringe on the rights of others. With the rise of the Christian right, however, religious freedom has come to mean that Christian fundamentalists are increasingly free to force their views on others.

In the 2014 Hobby Lobby decision, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that for-profit corporations can be exempted from regulations the owners object to on religious grounds. If the boss is opposed to birth control, for instance, he can just say it’s against his religion and deny coverage. That’s just wrong.

This summer, the Supreme Court opened the door to exactly what JFK rejected when it ruled in favor of a Montana program that provides tax incentives to donate to a scholarship fund for Christian schools. Most states, including Maine, have strict laws prohibiting tax dollars from being expended on religious education, but it remains to be seen how the new ruling impacts long-established state and federal laws.

The most recent case touching on separation of church and state came last month when the new conservative majority granted an injunction to prevent New York from enforcing a 10- to 25-person limit on church attendance to combat the pandemic. 

I initially assumed this decision signaled the court’s new right-wing religious agenda now that Amy Coney Barrett is on the court. But after reading the decision in Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Andrew M. Cuomo, Governor of New York, I was forced to conclude the court made the correct call, even though it was a 5-4 decision pitting the conservative quintet against Chief Justice Roberts and the liberal trio.

The court has not yet ushered in the creeping theocracy we should all fear. It simply decided that a strict numerical limit was not fair to large churches. Even in dissent, Roberts allowed that “Numerical capacity limits of 10 and 25 people, depending on the applicable zone, do seem unduly restrictive.”

The court left open the option of limiting attendance to a percentage of capacity, say 33 percent or 50 percent, as states do with restrictions on secular businesses.

You can see the handwriting on the wall, however, when Justice Neil Gorsuch, in his concurrence, complains of governors who “privilege restaurants, marijuana dispensaries, and casinos over churches, mosques, and temples.”

Privilege? Would churches really like to pay taxes and face the kind of government regulations most businesses do? I don’t think so. But as religious groups push their political agendas, aided and abetted by activist judges, they should not be surprised when just such a backlash occurs. 

JFK was right. The separation of church and state should be absolute.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.