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Playing havoc with the separation of church and state

The overturning of Roe v. Wade drew most of the outrage, but the U.S. Supreme Court’s extremist right wing majority did plenty of other damage before the Court mercifully recessed for summer. The separation of church and state, a bedrock Constitutional principle, took two severe hits from the Court majority.

However, if it was the majority’s intention to cement the United States as a Christian nation they may be disappointed. The law of unintended consequences is one law the court’s political activists can’t overturn.

In a case brought by two families in Maine, the Supreme Court decided by a 6-3 vote that religious schools must be included in a state-run tuition program. The families send their children to two schools that instruct students in Christian doctrine and beliefs.

This is the latest in a series of decisions by Court theocrats that in the words of dissenting Justice Sonia Sotomayor lead the nation to a place “where separation of church and state becomes a constitutional violation.”

The Court majority also ruled that the Bremerton, Washington school district violated the rights of former high school football coach Joseph Kennedy when it banned him from saying prayers on the 50-yard line. The district didn’t say that Kennedy couldn’t pray, only that he couldn’t grandstand at midfield. Kennedy chose to literally make a federal case of it.

School officials said they didn’t want to be seen as endorsing one religion and asserted that players felt coerced into joining their coach in prayer. In his majority opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch ignored these concerns, opining loftily that the Constitution demands “mutual respect and tolerance.” This from a judge who voted to deprive a woman of the right to an abortion.

The first clause of the Bill of Rights declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The nation’s founders, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in particular, feared that there could be no religious freedom if one religion had government favor and benefited from tax dollars collected on its behalf. This principle has for the most part held firm in the U.S. for more than two centuries.

World history is rife with examples of religious persecution caused by an alliance between government and a favored religion. The Taliban in Afghanistan provide a good contemporary example, and while the six-member American Taliban on the Supreme Court hasn’t established a favored religion it has weakened the barricades preventing that from happening.

While many Christians surely welcomed these two rulings it is likely that many Christians realize the consequences of the Court majority’s determination to end separation of church and state.

In his dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer noted there are roughly 100 different religions in the nation, all of them free to receive government funding. Justice Sotomayor wrote that the states are now in fact required to “subsidize religious indoctrination with taxpayer dollars.” Look for some religions that are out of the mainstream to pursue those subsidies.

Similarly, Justice Gorsuch’s “respect and tolerance” declaration will surely be tested. Christian parents won’t be pleased if a Muslim coach praises Allah or a Jewish coach reads from the Torah at midfield and urges their kids to join in, but maybe they should just show a little “respect and tolerance.”

The principle of separation of church and state is a tribute to the wisdom of our founders. The court’s right wing activists, some of them appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote, are tearing that barrier apart. That is bad for the nation and its citizens - including those who are now celebrating the Court’s reckless decisions.

Bill Everhart is the former editorial page editor of The Berkshire Eagle and is an occasional Eagle contributor. 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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